Graeme Sloan / Sipa US / AP Images
En español | Consumers in the U.S. have lost nearly $6 million to coronavirus-related fraud this year, according to complaints amassed by the Federal Trade Commission, a consumer protection agency that reported a surge in cases toward the end of March. That's when more people were tested, entering hospitals or, in some cases, self-isolating at home.
The late March rise suggests scammers are seeking to exploit the fears and uncertainty triggered by the pandemic.
Overall, during the first three months of the year there were 8,433 complaints made to the FTC that were tied to the coronavirus:
- 4,906 complaints about fraud
- 2,440 complaints pertaining to lending, mortgages, credit cards and other areas
- 758 complaints about violations of the National Do Not Call Registry
- 417 complaints about identity theft.
The four categories total more than 8,433 since some complaints fell into more than one category, an agency spokesman said.
About 44 percent of the fraud complaints came from people who actually lost money, and collectively they reported losing $5.85 million. The median fraud loss was $599.
Tips for consumers:
• Take your time to evaluate any email or offer you receive. Scammers urge quick action. Don't rush.
• Remember, bad actors prey on your fears.
• Do not respond to texts and emails about government checks. Anyone who tells you they can get you money now is likely a scammer.
• Do not speak into the phone if you receive a robocall and if you do, do not press any buttons on your phone if that's suggested.
Kansas woman spots a scam
Roxann Thomas, 65, who lives in rural Kansas, told AARP she got two suspicious text messages within minutes of each other in late March. One was a text alert, saying her $1,000 government stimulus was ready, with a link to click.
"I knew right away it was a scam, because they hadn't even cut the checks yet,” Thomas says. She also knew not to click any unfamiliar links — advice she'd received from her tech-savvy children and grandchildren. “I never click on links unless I know absolutely 100 percent what it's about, who it's from,” she says.
The other suspicious text said Thomas’ credit score was changing. She reported both texts to AARP's Fraud Watch Helpline, a free service with trained volunteers who take complaints about scams and offer advice. Complaints to the helpline are forwarded to the FTC's database.
One FTC official, Monica Vaca, was not surprised by the increase of complaints. She is associate director of the agency's Division of Consumer Response and Operations.
"This is trending so hard in the news headlines right now, and scammers like to follow the news,” Vaca says.
Scammers often prey on people's fears, and there is a great deal of fear around the spread of the new virus, which disproportionally affects older people. “I urge people to be on the lookout for offers — whether it's by phone, by email, by text — that play on your fears,” she says.
The scams vary: robocallers impersonating government employees and requesting personal information; sales people touting hard-to-find cleaning products and toilet paper; and other fraudsters seeking money for bogus charities.
Bad actors also are promising cures or remedies for COVID-19 even though there is currently no recognized cure for the disease.
Consumers are urged to seek information about the coronavirus from a trusted website such as cdc.gov, where the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention has compiled essential information.
Reports stream in
The data comes from reports to the FTC Consumer Sentinel Network, which amasses complaints made directly to the agency and to federal, state and private-sector partners including AARP.
During the last two years, the top complaint amassed by the Consumer Sentinel Network involved scammers pretending to be from the government, Vaca says. In this current health crisis, the FTC is seeing government imposters using the coronavirus as a hook to trick people into handing over money or sensitive personal data.
Fraudsters pretending to be from the government are behind common, lucrative scams, Vaca says. People need to be extra wary of any email, phone call or text from someone claiming to be from the CDC or the Social Security Administration or Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
"The government imposters are still out there,” Vaca says, “and they're still going to be using the name of these trusted government agencies to get people to part with their money or their personal information."
Spreading the word
Telling others about scam emails, calls and texts is critical to keeping others from being taken advantage of, according to Vaca, who urges Americans who receive them to tell their families, friends and neighbors. “If you get a call like this … tell somebody else. Awareness is key,” Vaca says. “If you know those things are out there, you can avoid losing money to them."
Making a complaint helps the FTC educate the public and investigate fraudsters for violations of the law. “We can warn other people and we use (the reports) for law enforcement” purposes, Vaca says.
Old scam, new twist
Reports to the AARP Helpline of coronavirus-related scams include texts that offer “rapid screening” for the disease, but include a link that will download malware (malicious software). In a twist on grandparent scams, people are hearing from “grandchildren” stating they were racing to get tested because they had a fever and chills and got pulled over for speeding and need money to get out of jail.
Amy Nofziger, AARP's director of Fraud Victim Support and its fraud helpline, says government agencies and legitimate firms never ask for payment with a prepaid gift card or wire transfer. To help prevent fraud, people can keep near their phone a “refusal script” indicating they don't give data or money.
"Scammers know that most of us are home right now and already under some amount of stress,” Nofziger says, “so they will use this opportunity to victimize you."