What to Know About COVID-19 Scams

The number of financial scams has risen since March as hackers are taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic. More than 30 million Americans have lost their jobs as businesses remain closed due to quarantine orders, and many are seeking loans to pay for food, rent, and other bills.

Cyber criminals have created a multitude of scams involving emails, texts, and fraudulent websites. Making sure you know the sender of an email or text message before replying may help keep personal and financial information safe.

Scams are on the Rise

Fraudsters have already begun by pretending they are bank or government officials. Others are scamming consumers by claiming they are employees of financial institutions such as auto lenders, mortgages, or credit card companies.

The Federal Trade Commission has had numerous reports of people pretending to work for various federal agencies such as the IRS, US Census Bureau, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Social Security Administration, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

Multiple Methods of Scamming

Unsuspecting consumers have received calls, text, and emails claiming they have been approved for money, are able to receive fast relief payments, or can seek cash grants because of the coronavirus, according to the FTC.

Cyber criminals often ask people to buy a gift card, wire money, pay with cryptocurrency, or send cash. All of those methods are fraudulent methods to obtain money from unsuspecting individuals.

Cryptocurrency Cons

The number of Bitcoin blackmail scams has risen rapidly in the past few weeks. In some emails, criminals state they were able to hack into a computer or laptop and recorded people viewing adult websites.

Their next step is to threaten by stating they could show the video to friends and family members unless a payment is made into their Bitcoin account. The FTC advises consumers not to pay anything and instead delete the message because it’s a scam.

SMS Swindles

Another common scam is sending text messages promising money in the form of economic impact payments or loans for small businesses. Some of the fraudsters use popular messaging platforms such as WhatsApp.

“If you’ve spotted messages like this, I hope you’ve also deleted them,” wrote Rosario Méndez, an attorney with the division of consumer and business education at the FTC. “These text messages going around could lead you to a scam or a hacker, but not to anything helpful.”

Official-looking texts might include the logo of the Executive Office of the President but are not affiliated with any government agency. The government will not contact consumers about pandemic recovery help . Another good tip-off that a text might be a scam is if it includes bad grammar or spelling.

Instead of clicking on links that are likely to expose people to more scams, download malware, or verify an active phone number that can be sold to more fraudsters, deleting the text message is generally the best plan of action.

Information about the federal government’s economic impact payment program can be found on the IRS website .

Email Extortion

The most common financial scams to be on the lookout for are variations of phishing emails and phone scams, according to Justin Brecese, director at the Crypsis Group, a McLean, Virginia-based incident response, risk management, and digital forensics firm.

The phishing emails often appear to be from the person’s bank or other financial institution and attempt to coax the victim into clicking on a link to a fraudulent website that mimics their financial institution’s and enter their credentials, Brescese said in an April 2020 interview. The emails may also try to solicit personal information.

Charity scams via phishing and fraudulent websites also increase during times of crisis. These are designed to trick the victim into believing they are donating to a worthwhile non-profit organization, but either the charity does not really exist or the money does not ultimately go to the charity.

Avoiding clicking on links or attachments or replying to any emails that solicit personal information is the recommended way to avoid these scams. Instead, always go directly to trusted websites. Always research any unfamiliar non-profit organization to ensure they are reputable before making donations.

Telephone Tricksters

Phone scams aim to solicit personal information or have people send money. These criminals rely on intimidation, pose as a government agency and leverage tactics such as claiming that the IRS or the FBI is investigating criminal activity. These calls will often state that victims need to send payments to the government to get out of trouble.

These criminals will request payments from a wire transfer or even via gift card purchases. These scammers recently posed as the Social Security Administration, aiming to trick people into believing that their Social Security checks are being frozen, he said.

“To avoid these scams, always be cautious when answering calls from unknown numbers, and do not provide any personal details unless the source is verified and trusted,” Brecese said when interviewed in April 2020. “Avoid following any links in unsolicited or unrecognized text messages, and instead delete the message and block the sender.”

“When it comes down to it, users must not click on suspicious links or navigate to untrustworthy sites, and only seek out information from reputable news sources,” said Rui Lopes, engineering and technical support director at Panda Security, a Boston-based provider of IT security solutions, in an April 2020 interview. “Otherwise, they might fall victim to emails touting the latest updates or breaking news.”

There could be spoofed emails lurking in email inboxes as “important shipping updates” while deliveries increase because people are homebound, he said.

Money Mules

As millions of people are looking for jobs, money mule scams that prey on people who need quick income are increasingly on the rise within the current economic climate, said Jack Mannino, CEO at nVisium, a Falls Church, Virginia-based application security provider, in an April 2020 interview. Money mule scammers send money to an individual and then ask that person to send the money to someone else.

They may promise a prize or other bonus in return, but, of course, it’s all a scam. The money sent is typically stolen or is a fake check, and when the scammer receives the victim’s real money, they disappear and the victim often ends up paying the consequences.

Vigilance on the part of consumers is exhibited by being wary of job listings for companies that can’t be found online via a quick search, not transferring funds or cashing checks on their behalf, and not sending money to anyone in exchange for employment.

The number of scams may continue and likely rise as shutdowns remain in most cities and states.

Protecting Your Data

Recent data breaches, in which hackers access email addresses and passwords, may account for the surge in the number of people being contacted in these scams.

People working in security recommend using a password manager, creating passwords that are difficult to guess, and using two-factor authentication to keep passwords safe from hackers.

Consumers should report any suspicious emails, texts or websites to the FTC at FTC.gov/complaint.

Stay a Step Ahead of COVID-19 Scammers

While COVID-19 scams could continue, avoiding things like giving out personal information and clicking on suspicious links sent from emails and text messages is a smart way to keep your finances safe from scammers.

The SoFi Relay credit score monitoring tool is one way to keep an eye on potential threats to your finances. See your credit score and spending breakdowns right on the mobile dashboard.

Weekly updates help you see if your credit score changed, and you can track charges made to your account. Checking your financial accounts and credit score frequently could alert you to potential scams sooner.

Learn how SoFi Relay can help you keep track of your financial picture.

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