From socially isolated seniors to distracted parents working from home, the coronavirus has exposed victims to scammers. Pandemic-related complaints to the Federal Trade Commission, the agency responsible for protecting U.S. consumers, started spiking in mid-March and remain high.
Here are some of the most common cons and some steps consumers can take to protect themselves:
Robocalls: Criminals are taking advantage of health-related fear and recording automated messages that sound like they’re coming from a state health department or other government agency. The messages mimic the approach of legitimate contact tracers, telling the person on the receiving end that he or she has been in contact with someone who’s ill with COVID-19 and asking for personal information that a real contact tracer would never request, such as a Social Security number or health insurance ID. The best advice is to hang up, and to report the number to the FTC at donotcall.gov.
Relief-program theft: Identity thieves can steal unemployment benefits or exploit a small-business loan offering. The best site to report and recover from identity theft is the FTC’s identitytheft.gov.
People who receive stimulus payments via a debit card rather than through direct deposit should beware of scammers calling to get the card’s information or saying there’s a fee to activate it.
Likewise, small-business owners (and their staff) who applied for Paycheck Protection Program loans should be wary of anyone calling or emailing to say they’re from a government organization and demanding a fee to access the loan or an identifying tax number. Remember, the Internal Revenue Service generally communicates by mail, not phone or email. Government websites end in .gov.
And here’s a protective trick for people who are still employed, just in case they lose their jobs: Set up a username and password at a state employment office website preemptively. If a scammer tries to open an account in the name of someone who’s already registered, it will set off alarms.
COVID-19 investment fraud: Some investors have been duped by companies claiming to offer a product that can detect, prevent or cure the coronavirus. For example, cold-callers sometimes recommend a medical- or drug-company stock and suggest that a victim buy it commission-free, then dump it once enough people pump up the price. Victims are easier to target than ever because a relief package approved by Congress in March lets people withdraw up to $100,000 from their 401(k) retirement plans without paying the usual penalty.
Pump-and-dump scammers and others tend to demand immediate action, or the promise of a set return, something legitimate money managers don’t do. The best place to check a financial professional’s credentials is on the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s BrokerCheck or the Investment Adviser Public Disclosure website at the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Poisoned meeting links: Many employees working from home on their personal computers lack the security systems provided by employers. That makes it easier for scammers to trick people into clicking on faux meeting links as Zoom and other online meeting platforms replace conference rooms. Links can install malware for stealing passwords and other sensitive information embedded on home computers. The best protection is vigilance and common sense: Look before you click!
Lonely-hearts schemes: Regulators say that more schemers are striking up online romances with the lonely and homebound, then persuading them to part with their money. Alas, no consumer-protection website can dissuade someone from draining life savings in the name of love.
Leondis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering personal finance.