Scammers have been taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to defraud individuals in a variety of new ways. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports that individuals in the United States have already been defrauded out of over $35 million in scams related to COVID-19.
As with fraud at any other time, many of these schemes specifically target older adults. The following are a few of the prominent scams related to COVID-19 that have arisen in recent weeks.
In times of crisis, people are more likely to give to charity to help those affected by a natural disaster, or in this case, a global pandemic. Unfortunately, many scam artists take advantage of this generosity and develop fake charities pretending to seek donations. These fake charities often look legitimate and may even plagiarize content from real organizations. But the “donations” just go into the hands of fraud perpetrators. Worse yet, the scammers may be getting hold of sensitive financial information.
Real charities will not ask for personal information such as a Social Security number, date of birth or bank account number. Be wary of any organizations asking for donations of cash or by wire transfer — these are frequently used by scammers since they are harder to trace. Visit an organization’s website before donating to check an organization’s legitimacy. Websites such as GuideStar or Charity Navigator can also be used to verify a charitable organization.
For those financially able to do so, this is an important time to be making donations to worthy organizations and causes. Just make sure that the organizations receiving the donations are real!
At-Home Testing and Treatments
Scammers often tout “miracle cures” for various health conditions, selling individuals unproven and unlicensed products. These scammers are capitalizing on the COVID-19 crisis and the testing shortage by offering at-home testing kits and COVID-19 vaccines. In some cases, a person will not receive anything after paying for one of these products. In other cases, they may receive something that serves no medical purpose.
There are no products proven to treat or prevent COVID-19 at this time. The FDA is beginning to approve at-home testing kits, but customers should exude caution and do their research before ordering any of these tests. Neither the FDA nor test manufacturers will email, call or text individuals trying to sell them an at-home test. FDA-authorized home collection kits still require pre-screening. Test swabs are sent to certified labs for processing rather than giving instant results.
The IRS began distributing economic impact payments (“stimulus checks”) in April to U.S. residents who meet income eligibility as outlined in the federal stimulus relief package passed in March. With checks coming to most households across the country, scammers are targeting recipients of these payments. There have been scams where individuals pose as government officials asking for private financial information to process the stimulus payment. In other cases, scammers claim to require a deposit before someone can receive their check, or claim that the payment was the wrong amount and must be returned.
The IRS will not call, text or email individuals about their payment. Similarly, they will not ask anyone to verify their Social Security number, bank account or government benefits debit card account number. One does not need to pay any money to access their stimulus payment and will not need to return any to the government once they deposit it. Use the IRS’ official website — irs.gov — for any information about the stimulus payments.
People who fall victim to scams are often too embarrassed to report them. But reporting these scams to authorities is the best way to ensure that the perpetrators are caught and that others are not targeted with the same schemes. In some cases, individuals may even get their money back.
The FBI operates an Internet Crime Complaint Center (www.ic3.gov). Complaints filed via this website are processed and may be referred to federal, state, local or international law enforcement or regulatory agencies for possible investigation. The FTC also operates an online portal (www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov) where individuals can report scams or consumer problems related to COVID-19.
AARP’s Fraud Watch Network Helpline — 877-908-3360 — is another option for reporting suspected fraud and receiving information about scams targeting older adults. Fraud Watch volunteers can also provide emotional support and guidance to individuals who have been victims of scams.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been stressful enough without losing money to fraud and identity theft. Remaining vigilant against these scams can better protect our assets as we navigate through this public health crisis.
David Griffith is the director of programs & outreach for the LGBT Elder Initiative. To learn more about the LGBT Elder Initiative, visit www.lgbtelderinitiative.org.