7 common COVID-19 scams

Learn how scammers are trying to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic—and things you can do to help protect yourself

COVID-19 may be changing the world, but the motives of scam artists have stayed largely the same. And as the disease has spread, it has also given scammers new opportunities to take advantage of people. 

Warnings about coronavirus-related scams have come from multiple federal agencies. And the scams have cost Americans tens of millions of dollars. You may be wondering what the scams are and how you can protect yourself. Here are seven common COVID-19 scams to be aware of.

1. COVID-19 treatment and testing frauds

As of publication, there were no federally approved vaccines or drugs to treat COVID-19. But that didn’t stop some companies from selling products they said could prevent, treat, diagnose or even cure the disease.

Trusting products that haven’t been approved could cost you more than just money. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), using fraudulent medicines in place of real treatments could threaten your life. The fakes could also cause adverse reactions or interfere with other medications. 

As the FDA works to develop COVID-19 medicines, it has offered tips to spot false claims: Be suspicious of claims to treat many diseases, of quick fixes and of miracle cures. And don’t let personal stories from other people replace scientific evidence.

If you come across phony treatments or tests, you can report them to the FDA. And if you have any health concerns, seek out a medical professional.

2. PPE scams and price gouging

Individuals aren’t the only ones being targeted. The FBI has given multiple warnings to health care providers about fraudulent personal protective equipment. Called “PPE” for short, the equipment includes things like masks, gloves, goggles, face shields and gowns.

The CDC’s tips for spotting counterfeit respirators are intended for people making large purchases, but the tips may still be useful for individual consumers. And people should also be aware of schemes like price gouging. With demand high and supply low, some people began selling PPE, food and other supplies at huge markups. And it’s still happening.

There’s no federal law prohibiting price gouging. But many states have them. You can contact your state’s attorney general to report any pricing that appears suspicious.

3. Contact tracing scams

If a person tests positive for COVID-19, authorities may use a process called contact tracing to identify others who may have been exposed. It’s a critical step to prevent the disease from spreading. But it’s also an opportunity for scammers to use a phishing technique known as smishing. 

In a phishing scam, fraudsters pose as a trustworthy source to steal your personal information. Smishing is phishing that occurs by text message. 

If you’ve been in contact with someone who’s infected, official tracers may contact you via text first. This legitimate text will let you know they’ll be calling later and what phone number to expect the call from. 

Scammers, however, will go a step further: Their texts will include a link, and clicking on it could download software that gives them access to your phone and personal information. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says to ignore and delete scam messages.

4. COVID-19 charity scams

A charity scam occurs when a thief attempts to take advantage of people’s generosity by posing as a real charity or by making one up. And with so many worthy causes to support these days, it may be easy for fraudulent organizations to blend in.

But the FTC has a few tips for ensuring your money winds up where you meant it to. It starts with some research. For instance, before you donate, you can search the charity’s name online, adding words like “scam” or “fraud.” You could also check charity ratings and reports to learn more about how donations are used. If you don’t see a charity listed, it could be a sign it’s fake.

It’s also helpful to know how scammers operate. They may try to rush you into making a donation. You can slow things down by asking questions about the charity and where your donation will be spent. If you get sentimental answers but not much detail, it might be best to do some more research or find another charity. 

Fraudsters have a number of ways they can try to disguise themselves to look legitimate. They may use recognizable logos or even spoof phone numbers to make them look like they’re local. Scammers could also try to make it seem like you’ve donated in the past. They do that by thanking you for money you never actually gave. They’re hoping you don’t give it much thought beyond, “I’ve donated before. Why not do it again?”

If someone wants your donation to be made with cash, with gift cards or by wire transfer, it’s a red flag. So are offers to share sweepstakes winnings for a donation.

5. Stimulus payment fraud

Economic impact payments, sometimes called stimulus payments, are intended to help Americans affected by the coronavirus. But they’ve also been linked to warnings from the IRS about fraud and identity theft.

The federal government is distributing stimulus payments in three ways: direct deposits, paper checks and debit cards. Confusion about payments and eligibility could provide an opportunity for scammers. You can learn more about how to check the status of your stimulus payment to help avoid some trouble.

Most eligible people don’t need to do anything to receive their payment. And you may have received yours already. If you haven’t, keep in mind that the IRS is not contacting people to verify or request information. So if you get phone calls, texts or emails, that could be a sign it’s a scam to obtain information about your bank accounts or banking relationships. 

Scammers posing as the IRS could try a few different tactics: They may ask you to sign over your check to them—one of many potential paper check frauds to look out for. They might offer to get you your payment faster. Or they could ask you to verify your personal or banking information.

If you suspect you’ve been a victim of fraud, you should report the scam to the IRS

Spotting legitimate debit cards

When it comes to stimulus payments sent as prepaid debit cards, don’t be fooled by the real thing. That may sound odd, but there are reports of people throwing away their stimulus payments thinking the card is junk mail—or even a scam. 

Official debit cards will come in a plain white envelope from Money Network Cardholder Services. And the card itself will have Visa® on the front and MetaBank® on the back. You can call 800-240-8100 if your card was lost, destroyed or stolen.

6. COVID-19 and banking-related scams

Banking-related scams have to do with attempts to access—you guessed it—your bank account. And banking scams happen all the time, so many of the tips below may still be relevant after things get back to normal.

Many banking scams involve phishing. For example, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation has warned about impostors posing as representatives of the FDIC or banks. But the FDIC has said it doesn’t reach out to ask for money or sensitive information.

There are a number of other common strategies scammers use to access your bank account and money. Here are a few:

  • Automatic withdrawals. Scam companies may ask for account access in order to set up free trials or provide prizes. But allowing automatic payments could result in more than you bargained for.
  • Unsolicited check fraud. If you’re sent a check you weren’t expecting and you cash it, you could be signing up for a loan or authorizing the sender to make purchases in your name.
  • Overpayment scams. In this type of check fraud, a scam artist sends a counterfeit check, with directions to deposit it and then wire a portion of the money back. But because the check is fake, you could end up owing your bank the money and losing anything you wired.

If you think you’ve been a victim of bank fraud, contact your bank to report it. If you’re concerned about your Capital One® account, you can reach out directly.

7. Coronavirus emergency scams

Emergency scams happen when fraudsters pose as family or friends of their targets. And targets are often grandparents and military families, according to the FTC. 

Scammers may tell dramatic stories and say money is needed immediately to get a loved one out of the hospital, a jail or a foreign country. 

Scammers can make their stories extra convincing by adding personal details they found on social media. They could also communicate through a hacked email account. And some scammers work in teams, with one person impersonating a lawyer or cop to make the story seem more believable.

In reality, it’s all part of the scammer’s goal to get your money before you realize what’s going on. And a story that involves the coronavirus may make it seem even more convincing.

But whether a scam is related to COVID-19 or not, the FTC makes these recommendations to protect yourself

  • Don’t take immediate action. Remember, part of the trick is playing to your emotions so you won’t doubt things.
  • Ask personal questions a scammer wouldn’t know the answer to.
  • If the caller claims to be someone you know, try hanging up and calling that person directly yourself. Use a phone number you know is real, not one given to you by the potential scammer.
  • Check with other friends or family members to confirm the story—even if you were asked to keep it a secret.
  • Don’t wire money or send cash or gift cards. There’s no way to trace these forms of payment or get them back once they’re gone.

If you get a scam call or think you might have been cheated, you can report it online to the FTC or call 877-382-4357.

Keeping your accounts secure

There’s no shortage of ways for scammers to try to take advantage of people. But being aware of their tricks and tactics could help you stay a step ahead. It may help to share this article if you have grandparents or other family who aren’t as familiar with online fraud. These tips to avoid scams may be helpful to them, too.

If you have fraud concerns or any other questions about your Capital One account, there are plenty of ways to connect.

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