New Coronavirus Scams Are Hurting Americans’ Finances

By Lindsay Frankel
Inside Subprime: July 27, 2020

Fraud can strike at any time, but fear and uncertainty amid the coronavirus crisis have brought even more scammers out of the woodwork. More than 124,000 Americans have reported collective losses of greater than $80 million from scams related to COVID-19 as of July 8. 

Almost anyone can be a target, whether they’re shopping online for personal protective equipment or trying to apply for unemployment benefits. And scammers are plotting more sophisticated scams that seem legitimate. 

The spike in scam activity this year couldn’t come at a worse time; almost half the population is jobless, and the average family was in a precarious financial situation even before household incomes dropped. But scammers often take advantage of people at their most vulnerable; in the past, more scams have popped up after natural disasters, mass shootings, and other crises. Here’s what to look for and what you can do to stay safe. 

Common Coronavirus Scams

COVID-19 Product Scams

Some scammers have been pushing products like vaccines, test kits, air filters, treatments, or cures with unsubstantiated claims of effectiveness. There currently isn’t a vaccine or a cure for the virus. The FBI also warns that scammers may be selling fraudulent antibody tests or using the tests to steal your information. Some scammers have also claimed to have essential goods such as cleaning products in stock, but they never actually deliver the items you pay for. 

IRS Stimulus Check Scams

As Americans waited for the first round of stimulus checks, scammers preyed upon the confusion many felt over how to access their funds. They’d send out robotexts that would lead to a phony IRS website asking victims to confirm information to receive their stimulus checks. A second round of stimulus checks looks probable, though the income threshold may be capped much lower this time. We can expect another round of scams as people await the second wave of relief.

Utility Scams

Scammers have always commonly threatened shutoffs to try to get utility customers to pay up, but they’re using another tactic to defraud people in the wake of the pandemic. They’re asking customers to confirm sensitive information such as birthdays and social security numbers in order to receive refunds from their utility companies. However, these callers aren’t from your natural gas or electric company; they’re identity thieves. 

Fake Charity Scams

There are new, legitimate organizations that have been established to provide relief to groups of Americans during the pandemic, but there are also scammers with fake websites who intend to keep your donations for themselves. Some scammers are also using crowdfunding sites to present a fake need to the community for donations. You should always research the organization thoroughly before submitting payment to make sure your money will actually be used for social good. 

Fraudulent Unemployment Insurance Claims

The FBI has seen an uptick in fraudulent unemployment insurance claims, with scammers attempting to use stolen personal information to access state and federal money for unemployment. The public should be aware of phishing attempts (links in emails or text messages that take you to a website to submit personal information) as well as scammers impersonating government agencies. If you receive an unsolicited call about collecting unemployment benefits, it’s probably a scam, particularly if the caller is asking for a fee. 

Social Security Scams

Social Security recipients will continue to receive the same benefit payments throughout the pandemic, which is why Americans should ignore calls requesting the verification of personal information or payment to maintain benefits. Whether you receive an email, text, letter, or phone call claiming that you’ll lose your Social Security benefits due to COVID-19, it’s a scam. 

Job Scams

Some fraudsters are taking advantage of growing unemployment with promises of work-from-home opportunities and other jobs. To avoid getting scammed, never pay upfront for training or equipment in hopes of landing a job. And research the opportunity with your state Attorney General before applying. 

How Government Agencies and Businesses Are Stepping In

Both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have issued warnings to companies selling fraudulent cures, vaccines, and treatments. While most businesses have stopped operations or stopped making false claims in response, the FTC has brought lawsuits against bad actors that fail to respond. 

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has also launched a website warning consumers about various COVID-19 related scams. And Attorney General Barr sent a memo to U.S. Attorneys instructing them to “prioritize the detection, investigation, and prosecution of all criminal conduct related to the current pandemic.”

Google has also stepped up to help consumers protect themselves from coronavirus scams. The new Scam Spotter program helps consumers identify and safely respond to scams. It also provides resources for consumers who want to report fraudulent activity.  

How to Protect Yourself

To prevent scammers from wreaking havoc on your finances, take the following precautions:

  • Do not give out your social security number or other sensitive information to anyone who calls, emails, or texts you, even if they claim to be with a government agency.
  • Don’t click links in emails or texts from an unknown sender
  • Don’t respond to offers for vaccines, tests, or treatments for COVID-19
  • Research nonprofit organizations before donating
  • Ignore emails that appear to be sent from the CDC or the WHO. Visit these organizations’ websites directly instead. 
  • Never pay a stranger with prepaid gift cards, wire transfer, or payment apps
  • Pay attention to red flags and offers that are too good to be true

Managing your personal finances during the time of coronavirus is difficult enough without scammers taking advantage of your hardship. Remain vigilant and keep your personal information protected. 

For more information on the middle income consumer, subprime loans and payday loans, see our city and state financial guides including states and cities like California, Texas, Illinois and more.