With all the serious things going on in the world right now, you might think scammers who prey on fear and misinformation might be taking a break to attend to their own lives. Unfortunately, that’s not the case…and almost as soon as we began hearing about the pandemic, we also started hearing about a number of COVID-19-related scams playing out both locally and across the country. Please be aware of this situation, and please forward this information to any friends or relatives you thing might be susceptible to any of the scams, schemes or fraudulent messages below.
COVID-19 Vaccines, Treatments and Cures
Perhaps the most pervasive of the currently circulating scams are those related directly to the coronavirus itself – offering vaccines and/or other kinds of preventative products, treatments and cures.
On April 24, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for Health Security newsletter offered its readers this warning:
“Misinformation, including the misinterpretation and misrepresentation of information—about COVID-19 and associated personal protective equipment, test kits, and vaccines or treatments continue to persist as the pandemic grows. The US Department of Justice announced earlier this week that it has disrupted hundreds of COVID-19 scams, including fraudulent websites seeking donations to the American Red Cross or soliciting personal information as well as websites for legitimate companies that were used to distribute malware. Earlier this month, the US FDA also published a warning regarding the sale and use of chlorine dioxide products—which when mixed with other chemicals can become bleach—as a prevention or treatment for COVID-19.”
Closer to home, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer recently issued a video message “warning Angelenos about scams surrounding COVID-19 tests. Although these scams might seem legitimate,” said the announcement, “they risk the health, money and identity of anyone who falls for them.” In short, said Feuer, “The FDA hasn’t authorized any tests that people can buy and use at home to test themselves. It’s not like a home pregnancy test; you can’t just buy it.” “Knowing that we can’t just buy a test,” he said, “means anyone trying to sell us one is a scammer. And this is happening in a variety of ways.”
Also, it turns out that the scammers are branching out into other kinds of messages that people could be vulnerable to during our current sheltering-at-home period. For example, local security firm SSA recently sent a message to its customers, warning about several other types of COVID-19-era scams circulating at the moment:
- Text from Netflix, Hulu, or other streaming services stating that due to social distancing, they are offering free, premium service.
- An email claiming you are eligible for an emergency government grant.
- A call from [the] State Police asking if you would like them to come and visit your home or office in order to offer advice on the best security company to use.
- A call from someone stating your family member is exhibiting signs of the coronavirus and is in the hospital, but they cannot be seen until a deposit is paid.
- Delivery scams, in which a caller says something like, “Hi this is ______ I’m trying to deliver your groceries but again this is the same place I went to before and there was no gate code before. I got lucky someone opened it for me but this time I can’t get in. I need the gate code. You need to text to me please.”
And finally, LA County warned people, way back on March 24, that even some COVID-19 mapping websites are scams, too:
“Currently, there are several Coronavirus tracking and mapping sites that are actually malware websites. Instead of clicking on these links, cybersecurity experts advise that website users should instead hover over the link to verify the uniform resource locator (URL) before moving forward. Online hackers may also send users emails from fraudulent accounts impersonating official websites and doctors, or offering medical supplies and services.”
Government Stimulus Payments
Next, once the U.S. government offered stimulus money directly to individuals, via check or direct deposit to bank accounts, a variety of scams targeting those payments sprouted up as well.
SSA Security warned its customers about a “text message is asking for your banking information so that the government can direct deposit funds into your account.”
And LAPD circulated a Community Alert message across the city, letting people know that taxpayers do NOT have to fill out any sort of application to receive the automatic stimulus payments, and there are NO fees or charges associated with the payments.
So if you hear from anyone who says otherwise, it is most definitely a scam, and you should not provide bank account information, social security numbers, or any other personal information, whether the query comes via e-mail, text, a phone call, or someone knocking at your door.
Finally, with the 2020 Census now fully underway, it’s not surprising to learn that there are also a number of census-themed scams going around. In fact, the AARP – which keeps a close eye on scams because seniors, as a group, tend to be particularly targeted by shady operators, and often particularly vulnerable to pleas for help or requests for information – puts census scams in the number two position on its list of Six Scams to Dodge in 2020.
The page warns that a “fake census worker” may come to your door, or contact you by phone, mail or e-mail…and then ask you for information (such as your Social Security Number), solicit donations…or “threaten you with arrest if you don’t cooperate,” none of which a legitimate census worker would ever do. (We’ve also heard warnings that would-be burglars may knock on your door, pretending to be census workers, but really wanting a closer look at your home and posessions.)
The AARP notes that real census takers always carry government-issued identification, so be sure to ask for their ID if someone does come to your door representing the census. You can also go to census.gov to learn more about the kinds of information the census does and doesn’t ask for.
So what’s the best way to protect yourself from COVID-19, stimulus check and census scams? First, it’s good to simply be aware of all the new scams floating around, so you’ll be more likely to recognize one when you see it. A second good defense is to note the advice provided by many governmental and security organizations.
- Don’t respond to texts, emails or calls about checks from the government. The details are still coming together.
- Ignore online offers for vaccinations. There are no products proven to treat or prevent COVID-19 at this time.
- Be wary of ads for test kits. The FDA just announced approval for one home test kit, which requires a doctor’s order. But most test kits being advertised have not been approved by the FDA, and aren’t necessarily accurate.
- Hang up on robocalls. Scammers are using illegal robocalls to pitch everything from low-priced health insurance to work-at-home schemes.
- Watch for emails claiming to be from the CDC or WHO. Use sites like coronavirus.gov and usa.gov/coronavirus to get the latest information. And don’t click on links from sources you don’t know.
- Do your homework when it comes to donations. Never donate in cash, by gift card, or by wiring money.
The AARP also maintains a page of easy-to-understand articles and information to help you protect yourself. It includes lists of do’s, don’ts, and where to report suspicious approaches or activity.
The SSA community letter offers the following “Tips to Spot a COVID-19 Scam“:
- Remember: government agencies do not communicate through social media avenues like Facebook. Be aware of unsolicited messages.
- Do NOT pay any money for a “free” government grant: If you have to pay money to claim a “free” grant, it is not really free. A real government agency will not ask you to pay an advanced processing fee. The only official list of all U.S. federal grant-making agencies is Grants.gov.
- Do your research: See if that government agency or organization actually exists. Find their contact info and call them to make sure it is legitimate.
And Los Angeles County advises people to:
- Avoid online advertising offers related to COVID-19
- Decline door-to-door solicitations claiming COVID-19 fundraising
- Do not click on emails and attachments that you do not recognize
- Visit trusted websites for COVID-19 related information
Some of those trusted sites include:
Finally, in a recent community message, LA County also reminded residents that they are not required to open their doors…and encouraged everyone “to not feel intimidated by a false sense of urgency to answer door-to-door solicitations.” “If you believe you have been scammed,” said the letter, “contact your bank immediately and report the information to local law enforcement.”