As of April 27, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had logged more than 732,000 consumer complaints related to COVID-19 and stimulus payments since the start of the pandemic, 72.5 percent of them involving fraud or identity theft. These scams have cost consumers $778 million, with a median loss of $415.
Criminals 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, when demand for COVID-19 tests spiked amid the omicron variant surge, federal and state authorities warned consumers about scammers selling fake or unauthorized at-home rapid tests online, or charging for tests that are administered for free by medical offices and public health departments.
Here are some coronavirus scams to look out for.
Fake tests and bogus cures
During the omicron wave, authorities in several states reported that scammers were setting up bogus pop-up testing clinics, or impersonating health care workers to approach people waiting in long lines at legitimate sites. Crooks offer quick access to fake or unapproved COVID-19 tests, collecting personal, financial or medical information they can use in identity theft or health insurance scams.
A January Better Business Bureau alert spotlights another common con: Robocalls direct consumers to fake clinic or medical supply websites that collect personal information or credit card numbers in the guise of offering test kits.
The FTC has taken legal action against companies suspected of abetting coronavirus robocalls, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set up a dedicated website with information on COVID-19 phone scams.
Pitches for phony remedies have been a scam hallmark since the start of the pandemic and haven't abated, even with vaccines and federally approved treatments now available. 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 treatments hawked in clinics and on websites, social media and television shows as defenses against the pandemic. In late December, federal officials shut down a New Jersey organization and ordered it to recall "nano silver" products it advertised and sold as a COVID-19 treatment.
The three economic relief packages passed by Congress in 2020 and 2021 delivered stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment benefits, aid to small businesses and other assistance to tens of millions of Americans. They also unleashed a torrent of schemes to steal aid payments. Criminals have drained nearly $100 billion from the federal relief programs, according to the Secret Service, which in December 2021 named a national coordinator for pandemic fraud recovery efforts.
Watch out for calls, texts or emails, purportedly from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and other government agencies, that instruct you to click a link, pay a fee or "confirm" personal data like your Social Security number to secure pandemic aid. 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 pandemic has also spawned stock scams. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission warned investors about con artists 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
Email phishing and related scams have been a big part of what the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center has labeled a pandemic-fueled "internet crime spree."
Following the mid-January launch of a federal website to distribute free COVID-19 home tests to U.S. households, cybercrooks began registering similar domain names, aiming to lure consumers to lookalike sites and harvest their personal information. (Make sure you're using the correct sites, covidtests.gov and special.usps.com, to order free tests from the government.)
They represent the latest in a long line of pandemic spoofing scams that have seen criminals register tens of thousands of COVID-related URLs, according to Palo Alto Networks, a cybersecurity company. If you contact one of those malicious sites, you could start getting phishing emails from scammers seeking to get personal information from you directly, or to plant malware that digs into files on your computer, looking for passwords and other private data for purposes of identity theft.
With employers requiring staff to get COVID-19 shots, cybersecurity firm Proofpoint reports that scammers are sending out emails purporting to be from human resources departments, requesting workers' proof of vaccination. Links in the message direct targets to a fake sign-in page where the crooks can harvest log-in credentials.
Crooks are also sending out emails and text messages disguised as surveys about COVID-19 vaccines, according to the U.S. Justice Department. These questionnaires, purportedly from shot producers Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, promise a "free" reward if you provide bank or credit card information to cover a small fee.
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 COVID-19 Scams
- Don't click on links or download files from unexpected emails, even if the sender appears to be a business, government agency 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.
- Don’t respond to unsolicited calls, emails, texts or social media messages offering rapid tests and other pandemic-related products. Check the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website for a list of approved tests and testing companies before buying tests online.
- Talk to your doctor or consult your local health department to find legitimate testing sites. If you attend a pop-up clinic, watch for red flags such as workers being unable to answer questions about the testing process or pressing attendees for personal or financial data.
- Ignore offers to sell COVID-19 vaccination cards. They are scams. Valid proof of vaccination can be obtained only from legitimate vaccine providers.
- Be wary of phone calls, emails and social media messages urging you to invest in a hot new stock from a company working on coronavirus-related products or services.
- 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.
- Report COVID-19 scams to the Federal Trade Commission, the National Center for Disaster Fraud and local law enforcement.
Sources: U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Federal Communications Commission, Florida attorney general’s office, Better Business Bureau.
Editor's note: This article has been updated with new information concerning coronavirus scams.