Updated: Mar 28, 2020
The financial exploitation of senior citizens has historically been the most common form of elder abuse in the country, with about 63,500 formally reported cases in 2017 (source), and likely many more unreported beyond that. While protecting yourself and your loved ones from scam artists may be the last thing on your mind in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, we’ve seen reports of a sharp uptick in solicitation and exploitation related to these events and want to ensure that our nation’s seniors and their loved ones are doing everything they can to protect themselves from financial losses.
Sadly, it has been proven time and time again that bad actors will exploit global events and crises to scam vulnerable people. The coronavirus is proving to be no exception. Given the fear and uncertainty surrounding the current events and the fact that older individuals are especially vulnerable to the virus, our elders have become the primary targets for a number of scams, many of which include reference to the coronavirus.
It should be noted that many of these scammers are extremely sophisticated, and no one should feel embarrassed for thinking they are legitimate, especially in this time of great uncertainty and fear. To be prepared and prevent financial exploitation, we’ve compiled a list of COVID-related scams, how they may show up, and how to protect yourself and your loved one from each one:
Potential Scams You May Encounter
Email is a common tool for scammers. They will often reach out and pretend to be a government entity, utility company, or other such organization. Their email address usually looks like some variation of the entity’s website, and they might use the organization's logos/typical email format. Some common things to look out for are:
Coronavirus-themed emails spreading malware: Cybersecurity firms are warning of malware being spread by coronavirus-themed emails. Watch out for any emails coming from a coronavirus based domain name (i.e. coronavirus.app, vaccine-coronavirus.com) trying to get you to click a link or download a file.
IRS Imposter Emails: You may get an email saying you owe back taxes or there’s a problem with your tax return. Or the scammer may offer you the option to direct deposit your tax return by asking for bank account details. The real IRS won’t initiate contact by phone or email - it will start with a letter, and you can always contact them directly at (800)-829-1040 to verify any communication from them.
Emails from the WHO or CDC: Emails floating around are spoofing major health organizations like the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. They may offer links with information about local COVID-19 cases, offer prevention advice in attachments and embedded links, or appeal for donations to a disaster-response fund. This information will generally not be sent out to the public unless you have specifically subscribed to receive their email updates. For the most up-to-date information about the Coronavirus, bookmark reliable sources, such as the CDC and WHO websites.
How to protect yourself:
Start by looking at the email address itself to ensure there are no spelling mistakes, and to make sure the domain name is legitimate - for example the CDC’s email addresses should end in @CDC.gov and WHO’s should end in @WHO.int, but sometimes spoofers will use fake domains like CDC.com or WHO.org.
Don’t automatically click on any links or download attachments. Read the email closely before clicking anything and look for spelling and grammar mistakes. If you have any suspicions, call or forward the email to a tech-savvy, trusted loved one to get their opinion.
Never click on a link and input personal information (i.e. Social Security number, Birth Date, Address, Bank Account info, etc.). Most banks, utility companies, etc. will not ask for that information by email.
Be wary of emails that demand immediate action and read all emails very closely.
Phone calls used to obtain personal information (date of birth, social security number, etc) or banking details/money have long been employed by scammers. Today, these might include coronavirus themed attempts such as:
Phone calls offering stimulus payments or economic relief but requiring financial information or prepayment from you. Do not trust anyone who calls saying that they can expedite or obtain a payment or a loan for you. You will NOT need to make any up-front payment or pay any fee to receive a stimulus payment.
Updated 3/28: An economic relief package has been passed that includes sending stimulus checks directly to about 90% of Americans. You can learn more about this stimulus package here. These checks will not require you to divulge personal information so DO NOT divulge this information to anyone who calls or emails you asking for verification of your DOB or SSN.
You DO NOT need to apply for the payment. It will be sent to you via direct deposit if the IRS has your bank account information on file, otherwise you will receive a check in the mail. Recipients will receive a notice by mail no later than 15 days after the payment is distributed, indicating the amount sent, the method it was delivered and the IRS phone number to call with any issues. Learn more directly from the IRS website here.
Phone calls from worried loved ones saying they are sick or need help. These often rely on dubious circumstances to keep you on the phone. For example, it might be a “grandchild” calling to report that they are in jail in another country and they need you to stay on the phone and wire money for them to meet bail, or they are sick in the hospital and need money to pay for treatment. The scammer will do anything to keep you on the phone with them in order to stop you from verifying with friends and family that this is not the case.
Utility Companies demanding payment for supposedly delinquent bills and threatening to terminate service. This is a common scam in normal times, but seniors are especially vulnerable to these calls right now given the uncertainty of the current situation and importance of ensuring heating/AC/internet is available during times of quarantine. Scammers might say you’ve overpaid and are owed a refund, or demand payment for supposed delinquent bills.
Note: Scammers have the ability to “Spoof” phone numbers so the utility company name show’s up on your Caller ID. Thus, don’t inherently trust calls from their number.
How to protect yourself:
Check back here for more information about economic stimulus checks, but know that you will not be called and asked for personal information in order to claim one.
If you are on a phone call with a person who is claiming to be a loved one in dire straights, consider hanging up and calling the person they are pretending to be (although the scammer will make up excuses like they don’t have their phone and are using a friend’s) or a loved one who can verify it is a scam.
Consider asking the person a specific question a scammer wouldn’t know. For example, what color is my house? What was the nickname I called you when you were growing up? What is your brother’s middle name?
If you receive an unsolicited call from a utility company, be wary, specifically if they threaten to cut off service unless paid immediately, or demand payment by wire transfer, gift card, or cryptocurrency. Hang up and call your utility company back with the phone number on their website.
There are reports of scams coming via text message. Look out for text messages offering free things (iPhones, Payday Loans, etc.) or payment requests from your utility company. There are also links being sent out offering information or data about the coronavirus or a list of people in your area who have been diagnosed. Personal information about coronavirus patients will not be distributed via text message.
How to protect yourself:
Don’t click on any links or provide any personal information via text.
Know that banks and legitimate businesses don’t send communications by text.
Ignore instructions to text "STOP" or "NO" to prevent future texts. This is a common ploy by scammers to confirm they have a live, active contact for more cell phone spam.
Don’t store passwords or private information on the notes app of your phone.
People Showing up at Front Doors
There have been limited reports of individuals across the country going door-to-door, targeting elderly residents by posing as the CDC or police. They may be dressed in lab coats or personal protective equipment and state and state that they are providing information about the Coronavirus, they need to test each citizen and demand payment, or offering the opportunity to “reserve a vaccine” through pre-payment. They attempt to use scare tactics to do so, and have been successful at collecting payments and other personal information from elders, or gaining access to burglarize their home.
How to protect yourself:
While this is a scary scenario, as of 3/21, there have only been a few reports of cases of this happening in Florida and Arkansas. Know that the CDC is not doing this, and would never request payment for such a service. Do not let any strangers in your home at this time. Politely refuse the test, close the door, and call 911 to report these individuals to the local authorities.
There are a number of websites and advertisements popping up offering products and supplements saying they can cure Covid-19. In fact, Amazon removed over 1 million products with misleading claims related to the Coronavirus by the end of February (source).
Additionally, some individuals are offering highly sought after supplies like hand sanitizer, masks and toilet paper online through sellers like Amazon and eBay. Many of these products are posted at exorbitant prices that violate the sellers policies for price gouging. Others are simply collecting money for these orders and not shipping out the product.
How to protect yourself:
As of today, there is nothing that can be purchased on the market that can cure coronavirus, so do not fall for products that make these false claims. For purchasing essentials and supplies online, make sure you always check the seller’s reviews and if you do make a purchase, make it with a credit card, which provides extra protections in the case of fraudulent transactions.
Scams targeting the elderly are increasing in number, and many of these center around coronavirus in some way. Scammers use fear, uncertainty, and greed to bypass our better judgement. Therefore, take care when you are receiving communications that make you feel threatened or pressured to act quickly, whether it is to claim a big check from the government, get “tested” for coronavirus, or send money to a loved one in dire straights. These are common approaches of scammers. Identify a trusted, tech-savvy friend or family member you can consult to help you identify whether a message or offer is legitimate or not!
If you have been scammed, or are concerned you might have, do not be embarrassed! Scammers can be incredibly sophisticated and anyone is capable of falling victim at some point. File a report with your police. They will be able to help identify the best next steps for you, and filing a report will be essential if you end up making an insurance claim. Also, consider calling the AARP Fraud Watch Network’s 24 hour hotline at (877-908-3360). There, volunteers can work with you to determine the best next steps.
Stay safe in these trying times and continue to look out for each other!
- Paula and the Compass Team