As consumer fears grow surrounding the spread of the new coronavirus, scammers are already trying to take advantage of people’s emotions.
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), fraudsters have been using email or websites to impersonate the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO) or other experts purporting to have information about COVID-19.
“The emails and posts may be promoting awareness and prevention tips, and fake information about cases in your neighborhood,” the FTC said. “They also may be asking you to donate to victims, offering advice on unproven treatments, or contain malicious email attachments.”
And with Americans staying at home in large numbers to help prevent the spread of the virus, isolated seniors could become especially vulnerable to fraud. Separated from family or friends, they could more easily fall victim to a “person-in-need” scam, where the scammer purports to be someone the senior cares about, such as a grandchild, who is in trouble or needs money immediately.
Jen McGarry, head of Risk Management Initiatives at RBC Wealth Management-U.S., says she's seen reports of fraudsters contacting seniors, offering to shop and deliver groceries to them if they provide their credit card information.
“This is a time to be vigilant,” McGarry says. “Don’t click a link or open attachments from sources you don’t know, and don’t give out any personal information, including credit card numbers, to anyone you don’t know.”
When in doubt, McGarry recommends contacting family or friends to fact-check a story or to confirm that something is legitimate.
“The golden rule of anything: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is,” she says.
These new scams are part of an overall increase in fraud, and as we continue to hurtle towards an increasingly online existence, scammers are evolving their techniques to stay ahead of authorities.
According to the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network's reporting site, online fraud – in the form of unsolicited emails, spyware/malware and shop-at-home scams – is littered throughout the organization’s top 10 complaints list. In addition to new coronavirus fraud, here are other online scams to be aware of, including what you can do to protect yourself and your family.
Phishing scams involve fraudsters creating unsolicited email, text messages or telephone calls purportedly from a legitimate company or business that request personal or financial information or login credentials, or attempt to get the recipient to click on malware. These communications often mimic details of the business using similar email addresses or phone numbers, and target customers of the business. Phishing was the number one complaint to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center in 2019, with more than 144,000 reports.
“Phishing impacts all individuals as they receive emails telling them to click on or share certain information,” says McGarry. “We regularly remind our employees and our clients not to click on something that they don’t recognize.”
She points out that while most financial institutions won’t generally ask for sensitive information via email, the urgency of language in these types of scams and the lookalike emails are often tell-tale signs.
Vigilance is key, says McGarry.
“Make sure these questionable emails are reported to the right people so they can investigate these matters and help avoid any future occurrences,” she says.
Government impersonators targeting fraud victims
The SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy (OIEA) recently issued an alert to investors that scammers were impersonating government officials and offering to help victims of fraud recover their investment-related losses for a fee in the form of a tax, deposit or “refundable insurance bond”.
Falsified communications from the Securities and Exchange Commission, including copied versions of the SEC seal and forged signatures gave the email accounts legitimacy, helping to dupe investors.
But government impersonators aren’t just going after investors, says McGarry.
“Around tax season you see a lot of phishing, notices from the ‘IRS’ that you owe tax payments and need to respond,” she says. “Again, recognizing the source and making sure you’re only providing information to authorized individuals (is key).”
She says part of the reason for scammers’ success in this realm is people’s sensitivity to owing taxes.
“People panic, they get anxious and they might be too quick to respond and not understand that it might not be a reputable site or legitimate request,” explains McGarry.
A key indicator is whether or not the email address ends in the official “.gov” domain.
“Reputable organizations typically do not request information via email,” she adds.
Identity theft complaints accounted for 15 percent of all fraud in 2018, according to the FTC.
“You see it all the time, whether it is somebody getting into your email and finding personal information or sophisticated hackers out there who are able to compromise some of your online accounts,” says McGarry.
In a lot of cases, hackers will steal your credit card, banking information or Social Security Number and use it to make purchases or carry out transactions in your name.
“Good credit monitoring goes a long way,” says McGarry.
She recommends checking your monthly bank and investment statements and reviewing your credit history on a periodic basis to keep an eye out for any suspicious purchases or transfers and never providing your SSN to strangers over the phone or email. If you feel like you’re the victim of identity theft, call your financial institution right away and walk through appropriate next steps, including placing blocks on your accounts. The financial institution may be able to monitor for future activities that appear atypical as well.
File a report with the police and ask for a copy of that report and contact all creditors you deal with to ensure they are aware you've been the subject of some sort of compromise or identity theft, says McGarry. Reporting (these incidents) is an important piece to stop the continued perpetration of fraud.