How to Protect Yourself and Your Loved One from Covid-19 Scams

Knowing what to look for is your first line of defense against fraudsters who prey on the vulnerable.

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- Posted on May 14, 2020

An unknown caller on a smartphone.

Julie Hayes is the Content Manager at Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging.

This is a time of uncertainty. Covid-19 has left people throughout the world in various states of vulnerability and confusion. You may want more information on ways to protect the health of your older loved one, not to mention your own. Your heart goes out to the medical professionals who have been affected by this crisis, and you may be searching for ways to give back to them. Unfortunately, this time has also led to a proliferation of fraudsters who take advantage of the confused and vulnerable by scamming for money, collecting private information and disseminating false information. But you can arm yourself and your loved one against this sort of activity by recognizing the signs of a scam and knowing what to do if one should occur.

Older adults are especially likely to be victimized by scammers. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), people over the age of 60 lose money to scams at twice the rate of those ages 20 to 59. This may feel particularly alarming when you’re already grappling with worry over your loved one’s health—and your own—and have concerns about how to protect your finances in this period of turbulence. But knowledge is the first line of defense, so it’s important to know what to look for.

Common Covid-19 scams and ways to guard against them

Robocalls. A number of these illegal calls promise to provide information on treatments, donations, social security or other subjects people are desperate to know about. Illegal robocallers typically prompt you to press a button for more information. If you do, however, your response is recognized as coming from a human, and you may be targeted for more calls, or asked to input private information.

If you or your loved one receives a robocall, hang up right away, don’t press any buttons the caller asks you to and don’t provide personal information. According to the Federal Communications Commission, no government agencies are calling to collect personal information at this time. It’s also important to take caution when answering calls from numbers you don’t recognize.

Phishing e-mails, texts or social media messages. A lot of scammers send out e-mails and messages that look authentic or appear to be from trusted sources, but are actually fake. This is a way to steal information or trick users into downloading viruses. In the present crisis, these e-mails may come in the form of communication from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) or the government. If you or your loved one are targeted by these messages, the scammer may collect information like social security or credit card numbers from you.

To guard against this, pay particular attention to e-mails or messages that claim to be from the CDC or WHO. These organizations will not contact you personally unless you’ve signed up for e-mail updates from them. If you have, in fact, signed up for e-mail updates from either organization, double check the e-mail address of the sender before interacting with them. An e-mail address that contains misspellings or strange numbers or letters may be fake. Keep in mind also that these organizations will never ask you to provide personal information directly via e-mail, text or social media, or without you engaging with them first, for example, by making a donation. You should be directed to the organization’s secured website to fill out any forms with personal information.

It’s also important not to click links from sources you don’t recognize. On the other hand, emails or social media messages may look like they are coming from someone you know, yet they contain an unexpected request, question or link. Make sure to check full email addresses, even when the sender appears to be a person you know, because it could be from a scammer. If you’re not sure, call the person to verify that the message is authentic and that they were the source.

Fake charitable organizations or crowdfunding requests. Certain scammers pose as organizations that need funds to support the vulnerable during this crisis. Many solicit payments in the form of wire transfers or gift cards, then pocket the money. Others may ask for crowdfunding donations to cover costs of financial or health issues they may not actually have. Still others may claim to be collecting donations to give to a charity of their choice, but may instead take the funds for themselves.

To protect yourselves from these sorts of scams, research charities and crowdfunding appeals before you consider making a donation. Charity Navigator has a star rating system for several organizations that accept donations. The FTC also has a guide on safely donating to charities. You may also want to donate directly to a charity instead of to an individual who is soliciting such donations.

Fake sellers. As a result of this crisis, a number of products, such as thermometers and hand sanitizer, have been difficult to come by. Some scammers are purporting to sell these items, often at increased prices, then failing to deliver them after being paid. Others may falsely say they’re selling home tests to detect Covid-19.

Take caution when purchasing items from online sellers, and look at their reviews and ratings beforehand. Disregard sellers or offers that promise home treatments and tests. The Food & Drug Administration is a good source of information on this as the situation develops.

Investment cons. Due to the stock market’s recent volatility, a lot of people are looking for opportunities to recover their losses. Scammers are using this as an opportunity to spread false information about companies that purport to be working on methods to detect and prevent Covid-19, suggesting that purchasing stock in these companies will result in a windfall.

At this time, misinformation is widespread. It can be especially confusing in that it’s not only disseminated by scammers, but sometimes by well-meaning individuals who may have picked up things from inaccurate sources. Fact check information through the CDC or the U.S. Government website. As this is a rapidly evolving situation, with new information being presented daily, individual state and national level politicians may not have all of the most recent information at one time, and should still be fact checked.

Where to report a Covid-19 scam

Often, people don’t want to report being victimized by scammers because they’re embarrassed. In fact, people over the age of 60 are the age group least likely to report that they’ve lost money due to a scam, according to FTC statistics. But reporting scams can be essential to shutting down the scammers and making sure that more people don’t fall prey to their exploitation.
To report a Covid-19-related scam, you or your loved one can:

· Contact the FBI online or over the phone at 412-432-4000.

· Contact the Covid-19 Fraud Coordinator at USAPAW.COVID19@usdoj.gov or 1-888-C19-WDPA.

· Submit a complaint through the FTC online.

As the situation continues to develop, you can stay informed of Covid-19 scams by checking alerts from the FTC and keeping up-to-date with information available through the CDC to avoid the problem of misinformation regarding cures, statistics and preventative measures. Despite this time of uncertainty, there is much you can do to keep you and your loved one safe.

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