As of July 26, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had logged more than 561,000 consumer complaints related to COVID-19 and stimulus payments, nearly three-fourths of them involving fraud or identity theft. These scams have cost consumers more than $505 million, with a median loss of $373.
Fraudsters are using the full suite of scam tools — phishing emails and texts, bogus social media posts, robocalls, impostor schemes and more — and closely following the headlines, adapting their messages and tactics as new medical and economic issues arise.
For example, with several states holding vaccine lotteries to encourage people to get COVID-19 shots, officials are warning of phony calls, texts and emails claiming you've won a big cash award for getting your jab and seeking personal or financial information to process the prize. The FTC issued an alert about a likely new wave of stimulus scams as the government begins sending out advance child tax credit payments to millions of eligible families in July as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act.
Here are some coronavirus scams to look out for.
Vaccine claims and bogus cures
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says consumers should be on the lookout for these signs of vaccine scams:
- Requests that you to pay out of pocket to receive a shot or get on a vaccine waiting list
- Ads for vaccines in websites, social media posts, emails or phone calls
- Marketers offering to sell or ship doses of COVID-19 vaccines
The FTC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have sent dozens of warnings to companies selling unapproved products they claim can cure or prevent COVID-19. Teas, essential oils, cannabinol, colloidol silver and intravenous vitamin-C therapies are among supposed antiviral treatments hawked in clinics and on websites, social media and television shows as defenses against the pandemic.
Other scammers claim to be selling or offering in-demand supplies such as masks, test kits and household cleaners, often in robocalls, texts or social media ads. The FTC has issued warnings to companies suspected of abetting coronavirus robocalls, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set up a dedicated website with information on COVID-19 phone scams.
The economic relief package passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in March is delivering $1,400 stimulus checks to tens of millions of Americans and boosting unemployment benefits by $300 a week until early September in many states. As with the first two rounds of pandemic aid, it unleashed a torrent of schemes to steal government payments.
Watch out for calls, texts or emails, purportedly from government agencies, that instruct you to click a link, pay a fee or "confirm" personal data like your Social Security number to secure your stimulus check. Another common con comes via social media, in scam Facebook messages promising to get you "COVID-19 relief grants."
With economic anxiety high, crooks are also impersonating banks and lenders, offering bogus help with bills, credit card debt or student loan forgiveness. Small businesses are being targeted, too, with scammers reaching out to owners with phony promises to help them secure federal disaster loans or improve Google search results.
The outbreak has also spawned stock scams. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is warning investors about fraudsters touting investments in companies with products that supposedly can prevent, detect or cure COVID-19. Buy those stocks now, the tipsters say, and they will soar in price.
It's a classic penny-stock fraud called “pump and dump.” The con artists have already bought the stocks, typically for a dollar or less. As the hype grows and the stock price increases, they dump the stock, saddling other investors with big losses.
Phishing and spoofing scams
Phishing, smishing and related scams reported to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center more than doubled in 2020 compared to the previous year, making up a big part of what the bureau called a pandemic-fueled "internet crime spree."
In addition, cybercrooks registered tens of thousands of COVID-related spoof web domains in the first year of the pandemic, according to a March 2021 report by Palo Alto Networks, a cybersecurity company. The Justice Department has shut down hundreds of these suspect sites, which promise access to personal protective equipment, relief payments, vaccines and other aid, often in the guise of government agencies or humanitarian organizations.
If you contact one of those malicious domains, you could start getting phishing emails from fraudsters in an attempt to get personal information from you directly, or to plant malware that digs into personal files on your computer, looking for passwords and other private data for purposes of identity theft.
The Department of Justice issued an alert in late March about phishing emails and text messages disguised as surveys about COVID-19 vaccines, purportedly sent out by shot producers Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca and promising a "free" reward if you provide bank or credit card information to cover a small fee. Authorities in states holding vaccine lotteries, including California, Maryland and Washington, warned residents that genuine messages notifying winners will not ask for Social Security numbers, bank information or other private data.
Scammers are also impersonating Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials in texts, calls and emails, seeking personal information to "register" people for a federal program to help cover funeral expenses for victims of COVID-19, according to a June 2021 Better Business Bureau alert. The program is real, but any unsolicited contact about it is fake; FEMA says it only reaches out to people who have already contacted the agency about funeral aid.
Editor's note: This article was published on March 9, 2020. It is being updated regularly with information on new coronavirus scams, law-enforcement actions and fraud statistics from the FTC.
Tips to avoid coronavirus scams
- Avoid online offers for coronavirus cures or faster access to vaccines. They aren't legitimate.
- Be wary of emails, calls and social media posts advertising "free" or government-ordered COVID-19 tests. Check the FDA website for a list of approved tests and testing companies.
- Don't click on links or download files from unexpected emails, even if the email address looks like a company or person you recognize. Ditto for text messages and unfamiliar websites.
- Don't share personal information such as Social Security, Medicare and credit card numbers in response to an unsolicited call, text or email.
- Be skeptical of fundraising calls or emails for COVID-19 victims or virus research, especially if they pressure you to act fast and request payment by prepaid debit cards or gift cards.
- Ignore phone calls or emails from strangers urging you to invest in a hot new stock from a company working on coronavirus-related products or services.
Sources: FTC, FCC, FBI, SEC