Staying Safe Online – Part 3
Coronavirus, Vaccine and Government Program Scams
Scammers have been using the pandemic as the hook for a variety of scams. These range from selling fake N95 masks to vaccine-related scams, such as offering spots on a priority list. There have also been bogus surveys that gather personal information and fake charities collecting donations from victims.
Government relief programs are commonly beleaguered by scams, and the government response to the pandemic is no exception. Stimulus checks, talk of student loan forgiveness and tax changes can all be woven into scammers’ messaging. Fraudsters even used a government program that helps pay funeral expenses as the basis for a scam. And expanded unemployment benefits have led to an increase in fraudulent unemployment benefit claims.
For more information, explore what government agencies have published on the topic of scams. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a coronavirus page with updated news and scam alerts. The IRS also maintains a list of tax-related scams and consumer alerts.
· Robocalls: Robocalls have people’s phones ringing nonstop with increasingly natural-sounding recorded voices offering everything from auto warranties to vacations, and issuing threats. Some systems can even respond to your questions.
· Texts: You may receive a text message from an unknown number or email address. Often, these smishing attempts include a link to a website or app.
· Impersonators: Scammers impersonate IRS personnel, police, survey takers, relatives, delivery people and well-known companies to threaten you or gain your trust. They use scare tactics related to your Social Security number, criminal record or account before asking for your personal, account or credit card information.
· Apps: Scammers may try to get you to install a malicious app to steal your information. Or, rip off existing apps and then make money from in-app purchases.
· QR codes: QR codes have gained popularity as a touchless option to do things like read a restaurant menu or make a payment during the pandemic. However, scammers place their QR codes in inconspicuous spots, and scanning the code could prompt you to make a small purchase or enter your credentials on a look-alike website.
As cryptocurrencies continue to buzz, people may fear missing out on their chance to get rich. The scams can take different forms but often involve fake prizes, contests, giveaways or early investment opportunities. The scammers may impersonate celebrities or popular cryptocurrency websites to lure victims into sending them money or sharing login information.
While romance scams aren’t new, they’re increasingly popular.
Scammers often steal someone’s identity or create fake profiles on dating and social media apps to meet victims. There’s no surefire method to detect a fake, although scammers may use attractive photos and avoid meeting in person—many use the coronavirus as an excuse.
After gaining your trust, they’ll ask you to buy them something or send them money. Or, the person may “mistakenly” send you money and ask you to send it back or forward it to someone else. If your bank later determines that their payment was fraudulent, you’ll be out the cash they sent you as well as whatever money you sent out.
Romance scams can target anyone, and some scammers form platonic rather than romantic relationships.
Online Purchase Scams
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) 2020 Scam Tracker Risk Report lists online purchase scams as the scam that posed the biggest risk to consumers in 2020. The basic premise of this type of scam is that you purchase a product or service that’s never delivered.
Some coronavirus and vaccine scams are a type of online purchase scam. However, the BBB found that pets and pet supplies accounted for over a third of online purchase scams in 2020.
Often, these scammers sell goods on marketplace websites or social media, although some set up fake ecommerce stores. Paying with a credit card can help you limit potential losses, as you can initiate a chargeback if you don’t receive a product or service.
Employment scams use enticing, and hard-to-detect, lures to target people who’ve been out of work. Some scammers take a slow approach with interviews and a legitimate-seeming operation. They then collect personal information from your employment forms, or tell you to buy equipment or training.
Other scams get right to the point and promise guaranteed or easy income—if you purchase their program. Sometimes, a fake employer sends a large paycheck and asks you to send the “extra” back—a play on the popular overpayment scam.
You may want to be extra cautious of travel-related scams in 2021. Offers to buy low-cost vacations, join a vacation club or become a travel agent to access deals can be tempting, but you might not get any real benefit in return. Or, you’ll wind up paying extra taxes and fees when you want to book a trip.
Basic Steps to Avoid Getting Scammed
While scammers’ delivery methods and messaging can quickly change, a few basic security measures can help protect you from the latest and most common scams:
· Be skeptical when someone contacts you. Scammers can spoof calls and emails to make it look like they are coming from different sources, including government agencies, charities, banks and large companies. Don’t share personal information, usernames or passwords that others can use to steal your identity.
· Research companies. Before you make a purchase or donation, take a few minutes to review the company. Do a web search for its name plus “scam” or “reviews” and research charities on Charity Navigator and CharityWatch.
· Be careful with your phone. If you suspect a spam call, don’t respond or press a button. The safest option is to hang up or ignore the call entirely. You can always look up the organization and initiate a call yourself if you’re worried there may actually be an issue.
· Don’t refund or forward overpayments. Be careful whenever a company or person asks you to refund or forward part of a payment. Often, the original payment will be fraudulent and taken back later.
· Look for suspicious payment requirements. Scammers often ask for payments via wire transfer, money order, cryptocurrency or gift cards. These payments can be harder to track and cancel than other forms of payment, which can leave you stuck without recourse.
If you’re the victim of a scam, you can file a report with the FTC and law enforcement. The report may help others avoid similar scams.
Continue Monitoring Your Identity
Following basic safety strategies and reviewing the latest scam alerts can help you stay safe. But mistakes happen, particularly when you’re stressed or overwhelmed. Even if you’re doing everything right, your information could be compromised in a data breach.
Sign up for free credit monitoring to get alerted when there are unexpected changes in your credit report, which could help you quickly respond to some types of fraud.