Protecting Yourself from Coronavirus Scammers

concerned woman receives a suspicious call

The following is presented for informational purposes only.

It’s a sad, infuriating story, but one we should all we be pretty familiar with by now: Something terrible happens that completely disrupts lives…and then the scammers show up.

We’ve seen this repeatedly in the wake of massive disasters. Now, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to evolve, we’re already seeing individuals across the globe attempting to take advantage of growing confusion and fear at the expense of those who are suffering most.

At the outset of the outbreak, this took the form of hording and price gouging, as individuals bought up massive quantities of crucial supplies (including face masks and Clorox wipes). Now, as various organizations begin rolling out relief solutions, we’re starting to see new scams develop.

As you navigate this incredibly challenging situation, be on the lookout for the warning signs of a potential scam. Here are a few scams that have already appeared, but it’s a certainty that there will be more.

Fake Vaccinations, Preventatives, or Testing Kits

There isn’t a vaccination for COVID-19 currently available, and there are no commercial products that can make you immune to the virus. There also aren't any at-home testing kits you can order for personal use. Beware of anyone trying to sell you things that simply don't exist yet.

If you’re going to invest in preventative measures, follow the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and make sure you have the ability to wash your hands regularly and disinfect all commonly touched surfaces.

Beyond that, practice social distancing and use good judgment.

Fake Government Relief Checks

There’s an ongoing discussion about what steps the government might take to help families and individuals through this crisis. With massive shutdowns and recommended (and sometimes required) self-isolation, there are a lot of workers who can’t make a living right now. There’s also been an enormous toll on multiple industries as consumers shy away from travel, entertainment, and more.

One option on the table is that the government will start cutting everyone a check. Leaving aside the logistics of how that might work and whether or not it’s the right idea, it’s absolutely the sort of situation scammers are looking to take advantage of.

The FTC recently released a few crucial tips on how to protect yourself from “fake government check” scammers:

You will not have to pay anything to receive your relief funds. Assuming this option moves forward, there is absolutely no way you will be asked to pay a fee to access your funds. Be extremely suspicious of anyone attempting to charge you upfront.

The government will not call you and ask for sensitive information. Do not give your Social Security number or private bank information to an unknown, unverified party over the phone.

The IRS is not going to overpay you by accident. Overpayment scams have been popular for a long time and this is just another opportunity for scammers to use a variation of an old favorite. The maximum stimulus amount is $1,200 per qualifying individual. Paper checks will start arriving in late April or earlier May, though the process may take some time. If you receive a check that seems like it could be your stimulus funds, but it's for more than $1,200, it's a scam. 

As a refresher, here's how this scam typically works: You receive a check for more than you should. The scammer asks you to cash the check and send them back the amount they "accidentally" overpaid. The funds become temporarily available, so you send back the difference. Later, the bank confirms that the check wasn't valid and you're out the money you sent back.

Anyone offering something that doesn’t exist is probably a scammer. You best defense against any scammer is good information. Try to stay current on what is and isn’t happening. Until the government actually decides to start sending out relief funds, anyone claiming to help you receive those funds is likely trying to scam you.

Phony Loan or Credit Card Offers

One step the federal government has taken to counteract the economic impact of the outbreak is to lower the federal interest rate to nearly 0%. This could be helpful to some borrowers, but scammers are using this information to con consumers with phony offers.

We recently learned about a scam where a caller claims to be from a major credit bureau and offers to help lower the interest rate on your credit card. Credit bureaus (such as Equifax and Experian) don't have any say over your interest rates - they just record and report your credit history. Additionally, it's extremely unlikely that a creditor or lender would call you up and offer to reduce your rates. 

As with any suspicious call, never provide sensitive information when you aren't completely confident that you know who you're speaking with. When in doubt, hang up and call back - and not on a number they've provided. Look up the phone number independently.

Beware of Phony Charities

There will always be unscrupulous people willing to manipulate the generosity and kindheartedness of others. Phony charity and crowdfunding schemes are a year-round scam, but they tend to increase exponentially in the wake of a disaster or crisis.

Make no mistake – giving to charity is absolutely a noble and worthwhile thing to do. Just make sure you do your research. Just because something has a lot of likes on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s legitimate. Try to stick to nationally recognized charities or local organizations you’ve personally verified. Your local food banks, shelters, and free clinics are great places to start.

Another thing to consider: how a charity wants you to donate. If they’re insistent on things like cash, gift cards, or a wire transfer – popular currency for scammers – they’re likely not legitimate.

Unfortunately, scams like this aren’t going away anytime soon. And as this outbreak develops, we’re likely to see more and more attempts to trick consumers out of money they absolutely cannot afford to lose right now. So stay smart, stay vigilant, and if it seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is.

Tagged in Coronavirus, Financial scams, Disaster recovery, Managing a loss of income

Jesse Campbell is the Content Manager at MMI, focused on creating and delivering valuable educational materials that help families through everyday and extraordinary financial challenges.

  • The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) is an association of nonprofit consumer organizations that was established in 1968 to advance the consumer interest through research, advocacy, and education. Today, nearly 300 of these groups participate in the federation and govern it through their representatives on the organization's Board of Directors.

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