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) reported on April 15 that since January 1, the FTC has gotten 18,235 reports of fraud related to COVID-19. 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 panic over the pandemic. These fraudsters are trying to tap the flood of federal stimulus money making its way to most Americans. They want to get their hands on your stimulus check.

Law enforcement officials are warning consumers to be particularly 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. The FDA says there are no approved vaccines, drugs or products currently available to treat or prevent the coronavirus (aka, COVID-19).

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 worthless penny stocks that are part of “pump and dump” schemes. 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 spreads around the world and throughout the U.S., criminal activities exploiting the emergency will 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.

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).

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.

It’s tax season, so we’re witnessing a spike in these scams. 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.

Also take note: Because of the coronavirus, the filing deadline for tax returns has been extended from April 15 to July 15, 2020.

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.

The safety of gold…

It’s during crises that the scamsters have a field day. As financial markets swoon, make sure your portfolio is not only protected from crooks but also properly hedged. That’s where gold comes in. The yellow metal is particularly appealing now as a shelter from uncertainty.

Markets have taken it on the chin lately, but don’t panic. Stick to your long-range goals. Never dump worthwhile stocks. History tells us that stock markets invariably bounce back after a crash. But in the meantime, remain cautious and load up on safe havens like the Midas metal.

You’ve come to trust the experts at Investing Daily. You need to find the right gold investments and we’ve done the homework for you. We prefer gold mining equities, which can confer exponential gains compared to physical bullion or funds. For details on our favorite gold mining stock, access our special report.

Looking for ways to cope with today’s extreme volatility? Drop me a line: mailbag@investingdaily.com

John Persinos is the editorial director of Investing Daily.