Don't Fall for These New COVID-19 Scams

By Christopher Michaels and Jennifer Jolly

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The COVID-19 pandemic is sweeping the globe, affecting just about every industry you can imagine. Many legitimate businesses are falling on hard times, but scammers? Oh, scammers are loving every second of it, exploiting our fears and anxieties in the hopes of cashing in. 

Their tactics are frightening. With so many of us working from home, our personal computers lack some of the protections that offices with full-time IT staff have by default. Now more than ever, we have to be picky about what we click, the sites we visit, and who we trust online. 

“The Cure”

The Scam: A COVID-19 cure has been discovered, and wouldn’t you know it, you can order it online! 

How It Works: Emails promising cures, treatments, or supplies to beat the virus (like those precious N95 masks that doctors wear) are flooding into inboxes. Some of them even come from seemingly legitimate sources, like California doctor Jennings Ryan Staley, who sent emails advertising “COVID-19 treatment packs” for $3,995. Patients who paid the lofty price were given the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine (which the doctor had smuggled in from China) and some anti-anxiety pills. 

Staley got caught and is facing federal charges, but spam emails offering “miracle” cures are still easy to find. They prey on our fear of getting sick and promise that methods like “ozone therapies” or herbal concoctions will give us an edge against the virus. 

How To Avoid It: This one is pretty easy since there is no cure for COVID-19. Right now, there aren’t even any truly reliable treatments if you’re infected. Doctors work to manage symptoms in the most severe cases. Scientists are toiling away in labs around the world to develop vaccines, but right now our best defense against the virus and the disease it causes is to follow social distancing guidelines and listen to health experts. Any email or website that says they have a cure is a complete sham. 

“Charity Cheats”

The Scam: A new charity or donation campaign is accepting money for COVID-19 relief. Just enter your credit card and choose your donation amount. You’ll be helping to save lives! 

How It Works: Literally anyone can set up a donation website or send out thousands of robocalls begging for funds, and scammers have been doing this kind of thing for a long time. In the past, they’ve targeted disaster relief efforts and political campaigns, but now they’re turning their sights to COVID-19. 

Spotting the differences between a real charity and a fake one can be difficult, but here are a few big red flags:

  • The charity asks for payment in cash or gift cards.
  • You receive an email from a charity thanking you for a donation you never made. 
  • The charity’s name is vague or non-specific. 
  • Scammers may promise that your donation is tax-deductible when that’s not true. 

How To Avoid It: Trustworthy websites like Charity Watch and Charity Navigator are reliable ways to verify if a charity really exists, and if the money you’re donating is going to the cause it claims. 

“Stimulus Sleazeballs”

The Scam: Phone calls or emails promising to “fast track” your government stimulus payment or claiming that you have to fill out a form or respond with personal information in order to receive your slice of the stimulus pie. 

How It Works: This is one of the oldest tricks in the book: They promise you money but then take the money you already have. They’ll ask for bank account or debit card information to “make the deposit,” but then use that information to skim money from your accounts. 

The FTC warns that email or text scammers will demand information that the government would never ask for, like your full social security number or direct deposit information. The IRS will never attempt to “verify” a payment with you, or claim to have accidentally overpaid you and then demand you send money back to them, which is another scam tactic. 

How To Avoid: For starters, you can check on the status of your stimulus payment any time via the official IRS website. Know that the government will almost never actually try to contact you, either by phone or email. If for some reason they would — such as the rollout of a survey or questionnaire from the Census Bureau — it will never ask for financial information or your full social security number. If you get your tax refund via direct deposit, your stimulus payment will be sent to that same account. If you don’t have direct deposit, the government is sending out your stimulus payment as a paper check. 

“Social Outcasts” 

With so many people working from home, scammers have taken to social media to reach new potential victims. If you’ve been on Facebook in the past two months you’ve seen the #ClassOf2020 picture posts and older graduates sharing their own senior photos with the masses. Bad idea. 

As the Better Business Bureau warns, those cheerful photos hold more personal information than you realize. An online bad guy can easily see your graduating year as well as the name of the high school you attended. Combine that with your name, birthday, and address (easily searchable online) and you’ve painted a very detailed picture of who you are. 

That’s a dream come true for an identity thief trying to guess the passwords to your accounts, or even scam your relatives by posing as you and asking for money. These types of impersonation scams are on the rise on Facebook, the BBB says, so be wary of friend requests from people you’re already friends with, or messages from “friends” that immediately ask you to donate money to charity or help them out personally.