Click on icon to access free audio version of this article. Check out the entire AARP on Audible Collection.
Anton Petrus / Getty Images
En español | Coronavirus scams are spreading nearly as fast as the virus itself. As of Aug. 2, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had logged more than 152,000 consumer complaints related to COVID-19 and stimulus payments, two-thirds of them involving fraud or identity theft. Victims have reported losing $97.4 million, with a median loss of $272.
Fraudsters are using the full suite of scam tools — phishing emails and texts, robocalls, impostor schemes and more — and closely following the headlines, adapting their messages and tactics as new medical and economic concerns arise.
For example, crooks are posing as contact tracers warning people that they've been exposed to COVID-19, and the FBI says scam artists are advertising fake COVID-19 antibody tests in hopes of harvesting personal information they can use in identity theft or health insurance scams.
Here are some other types of coronavirus scams scams to look out for.
In-demand products and bogus cures
No vaccines or drugs have been approved specifically to treat or prevent COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. That hasn't stopped fraudsters from flooding consumers with pitches for phony remedies.
The FTC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have sent more than 40 warnings to companies selling unapproved products they claim can cure or prevent COVID-19 and shut down a website that was promoting a nonexistent vaccine,.
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 surgical 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.
With most Americans getting stimulus checks under the federal CARES Act and tens of millions of people newly unemployed, federal agencies are warning of a wave of schemes to steal government payments. A May survey of jobless Americans by Credit Karma found that more than 1 in 5 had been contacted by scammers about stimulus payments or unemployement benefits.
Watch out for calls or emails, purportedly from government agencies, that use the term "stimulus" (the official term is "economic-impact payment") and ask you to sign over a check or provide personal information like your Social Security number. With economic anxiety rising, 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. Scammers seek to siphon Paycheck Protection Program dollars earmarked to help smaller firms survive the pandemic, or reach out to owners with promises of quick capital or help with 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, they 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.
The pandemic has brought about "significant increases in broad-based and targeted phishing campaigns," according to a July 30 alert from the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN).
Since January, tens of thousands of new website domans have been registered with terms related to COVID-19 and the response to it, such as "quarantine," "vaccine" and "CDC," FinCEN says. The Justice Department has shut down hundreds of these suspect sites, which promise 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 either to plant malware on your computer or to get your personal information. Google reported in April that its Gmail platform was blocking 18 million such messages a day.
The FTC and the Justice Department issued an alert about phishing texts and phone calls that are supposedly from contact tracers, warning you that you've been exposed to someone with COVID-19. The scam texts include a link that, if clicked, downloads malware to your device. (Messages from actual contact tracers working for public health agencies will not include a link, or ask you for money or personal data.)
These communications often appear to be from real businesses or government agencies, and clicking on links or downloading attached files could import a program that uses your internet connection to spread more malware, or digs into your personal files looking for passwords and other information for purposes of identity theft.
Be careful when you browse for information about coronavirus. Developing and testing vaccines for viruses takes a long time, and you'll hear about them first from a legitimate source, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO).
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-related vaccines or cures; 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 coronavirus stock.
Sources: FTC, FCC, FBI, SEC