COVID-19 Scammers Want Your Stimulus Check
My parents often call me for advice about unsolicited online offers that seem fishy to them. Invariably, these offers turn out to be scams. It burns me up that the unscrupulous would stoop to ripping-off the elderly. Hence my motivation for writing this article.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently warned about coronavirus-related fraud and announced a crackdown. The FTC reports that consumers have lost more than $1 billion due to COVID-19 scams. In recent weeks, several states have formed “COVID-19 Fraud Task Forces” in partnership with federal agencies to combat the problem.
Federal, state and local law enforcement authorities are reporting an explosion of scams as con artists move to exploit public anxiety over the pandemic. These fraudsters want to get their hands on your stimulus check.
Three rounds of checks…
A lot of money is at stake. The $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act was passed in March 2020, followed by a $900 billion relief bill in December 2020. Each legislative package provided direct stimulus payments to Americans.
The third round of stimulus checks came as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed by President Biden last month. Eligible Americans received a $1,400 stimulus payment, plus $1,400 for any dependent.
Under Biden’s plan, a single filer making up to $75,000 got the full payment, while those earning up to $80,000 got a reduced amount. Joint filers making up to $150,000 got the full $2,800, while those earning up to $160,000 got a smaller amount.
The federal government estimates that 85% of Americans were eligible for the American Rescue Plan payments. Direct deposits went out first and paper checks and debit cards followed. All payments were due to arrive before April 2021.
Scamsters already did a thorough job of tapping into the previous two rounds of checks. Now they’re trying to get their hands on the latest payments. The elderly are particularly susceptible.
Law enforcement officials are warning consumers to be wary of cyberscams, including slickly designed emails purporting to emanate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Red Cross or other health organizations.
The FTC and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently issued joint warnings that companies are selling unapproved and misbranded products, claiming they can treat or prevent the coronavirus. The companies’ products include teas, essential oils, and colloidal silver. The companies have no evidence to back up their claims, as required by law.
What’s more, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently warned that financial fraudsters are preying on investors with coronavirus stock scams. These con artists are issuing “research reports” on biotech companies that supposedly have produced a coronavirus vaccine.
The SEC states that it released its warning after it became aware of “a number of Internet promotions, including on social media, claiming that the products or services of publicly traded companies can prevent, detect or cure coronavirus, and that the stock of these companies will dramatically increase in value as a result.”
These come-ons typically involve “pump and dump” schemes to inflate the prices of essentially worthless penny stocks. Cryptocurrency scams related to coronavirus are emerging as well.
In addition, hackers are impersonating governmental health agencies in an attempt to operate a variety of schemes, from account takeovers to bogus donation requests to the insertion of malware.
As the coronavirus lingers, criminal activities exploiting the emergency proliferate. Don’t fall prey to the fear-mongering and manipulation tactics used by these cybercriminals.
Take a byte out of cybercrime…
It’s not just the coronavirus, of course. These silent invaders exploit any trend in the news in an attempt to purloin your hard-earned money. Online scams are growing in frequency and they often catch even seasoned investors.
The threat of cybertheft is exacerbated by the growing involvement of organized crime. Many financial losses have been traced back to the bank accounts of specific criminal organizations, especially in Russia and former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe, such as Bulgaria.
These tech-savvy gangsters won’t whack you; they’ll hack you.
A reminder of the omnipresent threat of hacking occurred in December 2020, when it was revealed that Russian hackers had staged a massive breach of U.S. government agency computer systems. An ex-White House official asserted that it could take years to assess and fix the damage caused by Russian cyber intruders within America’s top secret data files.
The prevalence of financial rip-offs has become what you might call a pandemic. According to a recent study conducted by the National Center for Victims of Crime and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), more than $50 billion is lost annually in the United States from schemes that defraud individuals.
The highest losses from these financial crimes every year occur under the category of investment fraud (see chart, compiled with data from the two organizations):
As you can see from the chart, a lot of seemingly ordinary brokers and financial advisers don’t have their clients’ best interests at heart.
As FINRA puts it: “Financial fraudsters often attempt to evoke strong emotions in their victims to convince them to hand over money, and seniors may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of heightened emotions on decision making.”
12 Steps to Avoid the Traps
To prevent getting ripped off by a cybercrook, consider these 12 precautionary steps:
1) Clean up your social media practices by not “friending” or connecting with unknown people.
2) Don’t click unknown web sites that have appeared in your inbox via unsolicited emails.
3) Avoid using debit cards online. Credit card companies enforce fraud control and restitution; you can usually get your money back if you’ve been a victim of cybercrime. But if hackers access your checking account via a debit card, the money is usually gone forever with no hope of redress.
4) Strengthen password protection. Don’t use family names or personal biographical data that can be deduced or unearthed.
5) Use security software, made by major anti-hacking companies such as Cisco Systems (NSDQ: CSCO), Symantec (NSDQ: SYMC) and FireEye (NSDQ: FEYE). The latter company reported last year that it had fallen victim to a sophisticated foreign-government attack that compromised its software tools. But FireEye quickly fixed the breach and the incident only underscored the need of individuals and businesses for protection.
6) Never respond to Internet ads for anti-spyware programs because they may actually open up spyware.
7) Don’t provide your birthday date on your social media profiles. Doing so makes it easier to steal your identity. Also consider throwing potential cyberthieves off the scent, by listing an erroneous birthday date.
8) Beware messages about IRS refunds. Piquing interest by mentioning tax refunds is an increasingly common tactic used by cybercriminals to con people into opening a link or attachment associated with an unsolicited email. These emails take people to a fake page where thieves try to steal personal data.
The IRS recently issued a bulletin that warned of a new scam: criminals posing as debt collection agency officials acting at the behest of the IRS. These digital con artists contact taxpayers via email to say a refund was deposited in error. They ask the taxpayers to forward the money to their collection agency. Incredibly enough, thousands of people have already fallen for this scheme.
As this year’s tax season unfolds, always keep this important point in mind: The IRS never initiates contact with taxpayers by email, text messages or social media to request personal or financial information.
9) Before initiating any financial transactions online, determine whether the web site is encrypted or not.
Always look for two things: the extra “s” at the end of http in the URL address and the trusted security lock symbols.
When you’re on the web page that’s asking for your credit card information, the “http” flips over to “https” if it’s a secure site. A lock symbol simultaneously appears on the right side of the address bar or at the bottom left of your browser window.
10) Enable “cookies” on your browser only for web sites that are important to you and which require it. Cookies are details web sites store on your computer, including your browsing habits. The majority of these web sites keep this data to themselves, but cookies provide a means for hackers to steal your personal information.
11) Avoid WiFi “trojan horses.” We live in an interconnected extended enterprise. Smartphones, laptops, tablets, and other WiFi-capable devices automatically connect to frequently used networks. For example, if you work in a home office, your laptop will default to your local Internet provider. But don’t get too comfortable with this convenience.
There’s a common fraud whereby cybercrooks set up a WiFi network with one overriding purpose: to fool your device into plugging in. The addresses of these imposter sites can have fiendishly clever names, such as Yahoo Starbucks, to attract unwitting victims. Go to “settings” and periodically delete the networks that your devices automatically join. Get a fresh start by joining them for the “first” time.
12) Make sure the automatic updates function on all of your software is turned on. Hackers and IT professionals are in a constant state of war. As the crooks develop new tools, the cyber cops find ways to foil them. If you’re using old versions of your software, you’re missing out on the latest protections.
Editor’s Note: I’ve just provided advice to help you protect your wealth. But you also need to build wealth. That’s where my colleague J.R. Butts comes in.
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