COVID-19 Scams: Fraudsters may capitalize on pandemic fears, uncertainty

News 8 Now investigates common scams that people are falling victim to and how to spot the warning signs

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT)– Over 80 million Americans will receive a stimulus payment this week. All that money means scammers are finding new ways to try to take it from you.

Since January, people have reported losing more than $13 million to coronavirus-related scams, according to the Federal Trade Commission. In a lot of ways, the scams that are popping up are similar to those before the pandemic.

“There’s a sense of unknown and fear right now in our society. And that’s where scammers do their best work,” said Jim Temmer, president of the Better Business Bureau of Wisconsin.

The BBB has seen six top coronavirus scams. Stimulus check or economic payment scams might claim to get you money faster or offer additional funds.

“Maybe you got your 1,200 bucks or 1,800 bucks– but you know what, here’s a website or if you pay an additional fee, you can get thousands of dollars more,” said Temmer, imitating what a social media post or website may claim.

The government will never tell you to pay money upfront to receive funds.

So why do people fall victim to this? A 2019 report co-authored by the Better Business Bureau found the perception that the fraudster “seemed official” was the top motivating reason why people lost money.

Temmer also cautions social media users that someone may impersonate or hack into a friend’s social media account. That would give them access to their friends. This scammer may then impersonate your friend to tell you about a way to get more money.

“Even if you’re getting something that claims it’s from a contact or a friend of yours, be highly suspicious of it,” Temmer said.

Now that stimulus payments are being sent to Americans, Temmer said scammers will be looking to sell you bogus products.

“Now that you have that money, you should spend it to protect yourself. Here is that miracle cure,” Temmer said.

They may also try to price gouge a product that they do have– especially those items that are in high demand. That may include cleaning products, hand sanitizer or toilet paper.

Scammers are also targeting the unemployed. About 22 million Americans are unemployed, according to the latest report released by the U.S. Department of Labor.

“Last year, before the virus ever hit, these types of employment scams were the #1 reported scam across the country to the Better Business Bureau,” Temmer said.

An ad might claim you can work from home making thousands of dollars and there’s no interview required.

“They may say, ‘Well, like any hiring we need your social security number, your driver’s license and give us your bank information so we can direct deposit your checks.’ Well, then you’ve given that all away,” Temmer said.

That’s what scammers want. Through phishing scams like e-mails, texts or phone calls, scammers are trying to get personal information, account numbers or passwords.

According to a 2019 report, phishing scams were the top reported crime to the FBI via the Internet Crime Complaint Center. Phishing (also known as vishing, smishing or harming) resulted in $57,836,379 in losses that year.

So how do you protect yourself? Don’t click on links, especially from unsolicited emails or texts. If you’re feeling pressured pay or enter information, don’t. Never give away personal or financial information, even if the source seems credible. Check out the government agency they claim to represent by calling the agency directly from its website, not the number they might leave for you to contact. And never pick up the phone, respond to a text or email, even if it tells you to send ‘stop’ so you won’t receive additional messages.

Anyone can fall for a scam, especially during uncertain times or during hardship. But being educated about the warning signs is the best place to start.

“When we inform each other of these scams like we’re doing right now, this is how we protect ourselves and empower our communities to stop these scammers,” Temmer said.

If you think you’ve been scammed, you can report it to local law enforcement. You should also notify the Federal Communications Commission.

If you’re concerned that others in your area may be targetted by the same scam, you can also contact the Better Business Bureau. You can also see if people have reported a similar scam on its website.