The global pandemic caused by COVID-19 changed nearly everything about how the world works. Unfortunately, one of the things that stayed the same was the opportunistic scammers looking to exploit others in times of need.
In fact, since the virus first took hold in 2019, it seems the only things spreading more quickly than the coronavirus itself are COVID-19 scams.
COVID-19 scams is a catchall term, referring to the wide-ranging and numerous deceptions that have sprung up in the wake of the global pandemic.
Helping perpetuate this new rise of fraud are the twin issues of change and confusion which have both run rampant since the virus started spreading.
A novel disease in every way, COVID-19 has spurred any number of news reports, many with updated or altered information on what the virus is and how best to handle it. And these changing dispatches contributed to a sense of mistrust—or, at least, some misgiving—over what’s actually going on.
Meanwhile, the government rolled out a number of very real programs, touching on everything from unemployment benefits to rent moratoriums, in an attempt to help. But in their rush to respond, many details got lost and had to be hammered out in real-time. Many people missed the boat on these new opportunities, or struggled to understand the new and changing rules behind them. And at the same time, millions more people became eligible for these extended programs, with the government hardly able to keep up with the sharp increase.
Seizing on the chaos and desperation, scammers unleashed a barrage of nefarious schemes centered around the virus. In fact, in the first four months of 2020 alone, more than 18,200 reports of COVID-19 scams were filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), representing a loss of more than $13.4 million.
Since then, the problem of coronavirus scams has only ballooned. But, with the newness of the virus itself waning, a bit more sense can be made of the picture, with some clear patterns emerging—and the red flags to go with them.
As the coronavirus continues to develop and adapt, so too do the scammers profiting off of it.
There is any number of COVID-19 scams going on at a given time, with new schemes hatched all the time. But these are, so far, some of the most common types of coronavirus scams.
Taking advantage of the concept of contact tracing and the general push to collect new data on the novel virus, some scammers have developed false COVID-19 surveys meant to capture sensitive personal details that can help them commit identity theft.
The surveys may seem earnest or indeed be modeled after real surveys government entities have used, but they’ll likely include more pointed personal questions, ask for sensitive medical or financial details, or offer money or gifts in exchange for taking them.
Though the COVID-19 vaccine is free and now widespread in America, some scammers are still trying to peddle appointments for the shot, sell fake vials of it, or push other (unproven) antidotes, for a fee.
Vaccine cards have also been the subject of scams. Fake ones are being sold on the black market, while scammers are also collecting information from selfies people have posted of their cards, which sport some potentially useful personal information.
One of the most widespread and dangerous types of coronavirus scam, these schemes revolve around the raft of new legislation pushed out in the wake of the virus.
Scammers may pose as government officials, reaching out through emails, texts, phone calls, or even robocalls. They may claim to be connected to the expanded unemployment benefits, small business loan program, stimulus checks, rent moratorium, new child tax credit, or any number of other programs created in the confusing wake of the virus.
What they’re all after is as much personal information of yours as they can get their hands on – a cache that will help them commit identity theft in your name.
Sadly, scammers aren’t above even posing as charity workers.
These types of fraud involve scammers getting in touch, on behalf of a charity helping those in need during the pandemic. They may claim to be from a famous organization or a new one created for this purpose. But any donation you make to these groups—along with any personal information you give them—will go straight to scammers’ pockets.
Impersonation scams are classic plots but coronavirus has given them a whole new twist.
In these types of COIVD-19 scams, a scammer will call, pretending to be someone you know—usually a grandchild or family member in the military—pretending to be sick with the virus. They’ll ask you to send help and money, but of course, the scammer will pocket it all.
The global pandemic has certainly pushed technology—and the need for more of it—to new heights. But some scammers are riding the coattails of that innovation, sending out emails or other messages that offer a chance to get involved in a “hot new product” or stock involving these new developments.
They’re just regular investment scams, dressed up as COVID-savvy advice.
One of the most lurid types of coronavirus scam, these schemes revolve around a real government program: The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Funeral Assistance Program.
The actual program provides financial assistance for COVID-19-related funeral expenses. But scammers will call surviving family members, pretending to be from the office, and using that excuse to collect sensitive information on the deceased, including Social Security numbers and other financial information.
The confusion, stress, grief, and fast-moving facts on the ground surrounding the pandemic make it especially difficult to tell the difference between a COVID-19 scam and a genuine call for help.
Still, there are a few red flags that may help you identify these schemes, including:
Again, these new breed of scams are still changing all the time. Overall, the best bet is to remain wary, and go with your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
An abundance of caution is the biggest thing needed to beat coronavirus scams. Still, there are a few more ways you can shore up your safety in these strange times, including:
Essentially, it’s always a good idea to keep all of your personal information as private as possible—no matter who’s asking.
If you think you’ve fallen for a coronavirus scam, there are still some measures you can take.
Depending on the type of scam, you can—and should—contact any or all of the following agencies:
If you gave away any personal, medical, insurance, or financial information, you should also immediately take the appropriate steps to recover from identity theft, such as:
Depending on the type and severity of scam, you may even consider contacting your local authorities.
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