Authorities are warning Washington residents to be wary of scammers taking advantage of economic anxiety amid the coronavirus shutdown, with schemes related to federal stimulus checks expected to be issued in the coming weeks.
The $2 trillion stimulus package approved by Congress and President Donald Trump includes $1,200 checks for most adults, and $2,400 for married couples. But the Washington State Attorney General’s Office said Tuesday it will likely take several weeks for the Treasury Department to start mailing checks, and any purported stimulus checks arriving now are not authentic.
The federal government won’t ask Americans to confirm personal or banking details by email, phone or text message, nor demand a “processing fee” to receive or rush a stimulus payment, the Attorney General’s Office said. The office advises people to not click on links in email or text messages about stimulus checks, and to avoid providing personal information to anyone who contacts them.
A scam text message sent to a Washington resident this month claimed $1,000 had been preapproved “to help you through this crisis,” and urged recipients to click on a website link. Another email sent to a resident claimed to offer “immunity oil” to block the coronavirus.
“Many Washingtonians are hurting financially as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, and urgently need the relief promised by the federal government,” said Attorney General Bob Ferguson in a written statement. “Scammers are seeing this news as well, and will take advantage of the opportunity to try to get your personal information. Don’t fall for it.”
The specific details of how the federal government will provide stimulus payments have not been made available, but Ferguson’s office said, generally, the government will use tax information it has on file from the past two years to either provide the funds via direct deposit, or mail people checks.
Retiree advocates and federal agencies are issuing similar warnings, saying scammers will try to trick people into giving up personal information that can be used to steal money from bank accounts or promote identity theft.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation says it has seen a rise in fraud schemes related to the novel coronavirus pandemic, including fake emails purporting to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and phishing emails asking people to verify personal information to receive a stimulus check. The FBI said it also has seen fake coronavirus-related charities, counterfeit treatments and fake medical equipment offered for sale.
The Justice Department last week brought a COVID-19 fraud case against a Texas company offering a coronavirus vaccine for $4.95 — if customers gave their credit card numbers. There is no approved vaccine for the virus. The state of Missouri recently sued televangelist Jim Bakker for selling a fake coronavirus cure.
Jason Erskine, a spokesman for AARP Washington, said hucksters will use fear to get people to fall for fraud schemes.
“Fear is a powerful motivator that can get people to make decisions and take actions they wouldn’t otherwise make under normal circumstances. Usually, the scammers have to find a way to get people in to that heightened emotional state, but in the case of coronavirus, we’re already there,” he said.
Within minutes of Trump’s speech talking about payments to Americans to stimulate the economy, Erskine said, an AARP member contacted the group’s hotline to report she’d received a bogus email telling her to go to a website to claim a preapproved $1,000 payment.
Erskine says anyone with concerns can contact the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 to report a scam, or to ask questions about whether an appeal they’ve received is a scam or not. AARP membership is not required.
Ferguson’s office said scams related to federal stimulus checks can be reported to the Federal Trade Commission and urged anyone who believes they’ve been a victim to contact local law enforcement.