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Tax, other scammers take advantage of coronavirus fears

Coronavirus-scams_Pixabay
Pixabay/CDC

Coronavirus relief checks still are weeks away from arriving in our bank accounts or snail mail boxes, but crooks already are trying to trick us out of the money.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) says its ScamTracker already has detected crooks impersonating as government officials and calling about the money authorized under the just-enacted Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

New hooks, old scams: COVID-19 is a new bait, but the scam scenarios are out of the standard con artist playbook.

You get an email or see an online post about a special COVID-19 government grant. All you have to do is click the link, which takes you what seems to be an official website. You often can spot such fake links because they tend to have misspellings or wrong domains; for example, an address that should end in an official .gov suffix ends instead with .com.

If you do end up at one of these fake websites, you're asked to enter your personal information and/or banking details so that the fake federal officials can verify your identity and process your grant. Don't. Close that browser window!

As always, there are several versions of these COVID-19 cons. The common scam outreach methods such as text messages, social media posts, phishing email and phone calls are still being used.

COVID-19 con tweaks: To catch even more COVID-19 prey, however, some fake emails are purportedly coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or other organizations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), claiming to offer information on the virus.

Email scam tip offs Kaspersky
Kaspersky

Other hoaxes claim that the government will order a mandatory national two-week quarantine, or instruct you to go out and stock up on supplies. The messages can appear to be from a "next door neighbor."

Some crooks even are using a Facebook variation targeting seniors, telling them about a special grant to help pay medical bills, up to $150,000 in one con attempt. The link leads to a website for the phony U.S. Emergency Grants Federation where all you must do to get the funds is share personal details and pay a small processing fee.

And to get those who want to help others, some scams ask for donations to charity online or through social media or to crowdfunding campaign to help those hard hit by the virus.

COVID-19 checks scams: As the BBB report indicates, scams tied to the soon to be distributed coronavirus relief checks are in the works.

The Internal Revenue Service is in charge of delivering the CARES Act authorized relief amounts, which range from maximums of $1,200 for individuals to twice that for married couples, along with $500 for each qualifying child claimed by taxpayers.

As this delivery process begins, look for tax-related COVID-19 scams to appear and escalate as rapidly as the pandemic's spread. That's why the Treasury Department via its website advises (the bold face is by Treasury):  

If you receive calls, emails, or other communications claiming to be from the Treasury Department and offering COVID-19 related grants or stimulus payments in exchange for personal financial information, or an advance fee, or charge of any kind, including the purchase of gift cards, please do not respond. These are scams. Please contact the FBI at www.ic3.gov so that the scammers can be tracked and stopped.

Fraud involving payment of Federal taxes should be reported to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.

Automatic relief payments: Remember, you don't have to do anything to get the relief payments.

The IRS will use your 2019 or 2018 tax return information, whichever is the latest information the tax agency has on hand, to determine the amount you should get.

IRS building sign via GAO

The tax agency then will automatically mail you a paper check or directly deposit your relief total into the account you used to receive your tax refund this or last year.

This means that you should ignore any COVID-19 check propositions that offer you ways to get more money or get it quicker. Specifically, be wary of coronavirus come-ons that include the following components:

  • Fees and charges: You do not have to pay to get your qualifying coronavirus relief checks. No real representative from the Treasury, IRS or other government agency will ask you to pay anything up front to get this money. In fact, no one from the Treasury, IRS or other government agency is going to call you about the checks.
  • Personal and financial info: You will not get any calls from anyone with the federal government seeking your Social Security number, bank account or credit card number. People who do make these calls are scammers.
  • Early check delivery: Anyone who tells you they've already received their COVID-19 check and you, too, can get your money now is lying. The checks aren't yet a reality. Plus, as noted just a few paragraphs earlier, you don't have to do anything at all to get one.

More than tax scams: The criminal hunt for COVID-19 scam prey started well before federal lawmakers cobbled together the CARES Act.

In early March, Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) warned us about potential COVID-19 scams. Crooks, noted CISA, will put their usual illicit techniques to work using pandemic fears to get us to open malicious attachments or click on links to fraudulent websites.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a series of similar warnings a week before the CARES Act became law. Those agents also wanted us to be on high alert for scammers using the COVID-19 crisis to steal our money, our personal information or both.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) also has joined the coronavirus scam warning chorus.

"We have become 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," the SEC told investors. "The promotions often take the form of so-called 'research reports' and make predictions of a specific 'target price.' We urge investors to be wary of these promotions and to be aware of the substantial potential for fraud at this time."

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also has received reports of scam and hoax text message campaigns and scam robocalls that prey on virus-related fears. The FCC says these fake offers include free home testing kits, bogus cures and health insurance.

Tips to avoid COVID-19 and other scams: Regardless of the type of COVID-19 scam or its specific angle, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has some tips to help you keep coronavirus scammers at bay:

  • Hang up on robocalls. Don't press any numbers. Scammers are using illegal robocalls to pitch everything from scam Coronavirus treatments to work-at-home schemes. The recording might say that pressing a number will let you speak to a live operator or remove you from their call list, but it might lead to more robocalls, instead.
  • Ignore online offers for vaccinations and home test kits. Scammers are trying to get you to buy products that aren't proven to treat or prevent coronavirus disease 2019. At this time, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not authorized any home COVID-19 test kits. You can learn more at the FDA's website.
  • Fact-check information. Scammers, and sometimes even well-meaning people, share information that hasn't been verified. Before you pass on any messages, contact trusted sources. The official What the U.S. Government is Doing website has links to federal, state and local government agencies with correct, up-to-date COVID-19 information.

Coronavirus_sharables

  • Know who you're buying from. Online sellers may claim to have in-demand products, like cleaning, household and health and medical supplies when, in fact, they don't.
  • Don't respond to texts and emails about the COVID-19 checks. The details are still being worked out. As noted, earlier, anyone who tells you they can get you the money now is a scammer.
  • Don't click on links from sources you don't know. They could download viruses and other malware onto your computer or device or take it over completely.
  • Do your homework when it comes to charitable donations, whether through nonprofits or crowdfunding sites. Don't let anyone rush you into making a donation. If someone wants donations in cash, by gift card or by wiring money, don't do it.

Don't act in haste: The bottom line is wait. Take a minute. Take a breath.

Hang up the land line. Put down the smartphone or tablet. Walk away from your computer. And just think about what you read.

If you need guidance about what to do during this scary time, don't get it from an anonymous email or message. Instead, talk to your family with whom you're spending all this time self-isolating at home. Or if you're alone (so sorry!) Facetime a trusted family member or friend.

That will help prevent your coronavirus fear from prompting you to something that could make your health, financial and tax situations worse.

Bonus post (updated March 30, 2020): My Tumbling Taxes coronavirus tax+ scams post includes a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention video on ways to lower your risk of getting sick with COVID-19.

 

Coronavirus Caveat & More Information
In 2020, we're all dealing with extraordinary circumstances,
both in our daily lives and when it comes to our taxes.
The COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to reduce its transmission
and protect ourselves and our families means that,
for the most part, we're focusing on just getting through these trying days.

But life as we knew it before the coronavirus will return,
along with our mundane tax matters.
Here's hoping that happens soon!
In the meantime, you can find more on the virus and its effects on our taxes
by clicking Coronavirus (COVID-19) and Taxes.

 

You also might find these items of interest:

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