As of May 3, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had logged more than 471,600 consumer complaints related to COVID-19 and stimulus payments, 71.8 percent of them involving fraud or identity theft. These scams have cost consumers more than $423 million, with a median loss of $350.
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 the COVID-19 vaccination in full swing, federal and state agencies are warning of a flood of vaccine scams, with phony websites and email campaigns promising easy and early access to coronavirus shots. Authorities also anticipate a fresh wave of stimulus scams as the $1.9 trillion Amercan Rescue Plan Act brings a new round of relief payments, enhanced unemployment benefits and small business loans.
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 will deliver $1,400 stimulus checks to tens of millions of Americans and boost unemployment benefits by $300 a week until September. As with the first two rounds of pandemic aid, it's likely to unleash 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.
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 2020, tens of thousands of new website domains 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 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.
Scammers are also impersonating contact tracers, warning that you've been exposed to the virus. Their 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.
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