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The latest COVID-19 risk? Scams to steal relief money

COVID-19 coronavirus scam warning by IRS

You're following all the recommended pandemic precautions. You stay home. You have your groceries and meals delivered. If you must go out, it's for drive-through or curbside pickup of necessary items. You always wear a mask when you leave your home.

But you still might not be safe from the latest iteration of the coronavirus outbreak.

This time, though, it's not medical, but financial.

Scammers are coming to us via emails and phone calls, using a variety of tricks to get their hands on our COVID-19 economic impact payments (EIPs) and other funds.

The Internal Revenue Service's Criminal Investigation (CI) division says it has seen more scams that are centered on the payments, which are still being distributed as direct deposits to bank accounts, snail mailed paper U.S. Treasury checks and prepaid debit cards.

That variety of delivery methods means a similar diverse assortment of EIP schemes.

"Criminals seize on every opportunity to exploit bad situations, and this pandemic is no exception," said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig. "The pursuit of those who participate in COVID-19 related scams, intentionally abusing the programs intended to help millions of Americans during these uncertain times, will long remain a significant priority of both the IRS and IRS-CI."

EIP phishing season is here: Not surprisingly, the usual scam methodologies have ramped up since the payments — a maximum of $1,200 for eligible individuals, twice that for married couples filing jointly and $500 for each qualifying child — were approved in late March as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

IRS CI says it has seen a tremendous increase in phishing schemes utilizing emails, letters, texts and links. These phishing schemes are using keywords such as "Corona Virus," "COVID-19" and "Stimulus" in varying ways.

While the phishing hook is the COVID-19 EIP, they operate the same old way. They use our fear of the virus, both medical and economic in the case of the coronavirus. That the stimulus amounts can vary based on which tax year the IRS used to calculate them and the recipients' incomes also create uncertainty that the con artists use.

The crooks send out their fake messages to as many people as possible in order to entice them to reveal personally identifying information or financial information, including account numbers and passwords. Doing so, according to the criminals, can help you get your payment sooner or, if you've already received it, the con artists say they can help you get more.

Other types of scams: In addition to the phishing, the IRS says other COVID-19 related scams that are popping up nationwide. They include:

  • Fake charities that solicit donations for individuals, groups and areas affected by the disease. There are some legitimate efforts, both via traditional IRS-authorized 501(c)(3) organizations and independently operated groups designed for smaller, more specific aid targets. Don't be pressured into giving. Take the time to check out the ostensible charities. And remember, if you want to claim a tax deduction for your donation, you must give to a group that been approved by the IRS. 
  • Fraudulent investment opportunities that scurrilous promoters say will let you get in on the ground floor of companies working on a coronavirus vaccine. Once the vaccines are ready, goes the con, the companies' value and your investment in it will skyrocket. Again, before giving you money to anyone, charity or business related, check out the project that is seeking your financial support. Legitimate investment possibilities provide comprehensive reports of their efforts and goals.
  • Fake COVID-19 treatments also are being pushed by con artists. These questionable items range from at-home test kits to cures and vaccines to pills to lessen the virus's symptoms. Other scams purport to sell large quantities of medical supplies through the creation of fake shops, websites, social media accounts and email addresses where the criminal fails to deliver promised supplies after receiving funds.

"Criminals try to take advantage of our most vulnerable times and our most vulnerable populations. But because we have seen many of these criminals and schemes before, we know how to find them and we know how to expose them," said Don Fort, Chief of IRS CI.

Florida, as usual, is a scam hotbed: The Sunshine State has long been a breeding ground for tax scams, so it's no surprise that COVID-19 schemes are proliferating there, too.

The IRS CI Field Office in Tampa has reported a rash of COVID-19 EIP scams across the state in northeast Florida, including St Johns County. Most of the efforts there, say officials, are coronavirus-related phishing attempts.

Why do cyber criminals seem to flock to Florida, which is a prime scam location for all sorts of schemes, from tax return fraud to identity theft to coronavirus crimes? One reason might be the demographics of the state.

More than 20 percent of Florida's population is age 65 or older and is growing. And just as older folks are the prime victims of the coronavirus itself — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report eight out of 10 coronavirus deaths in the United States have occurred in adults 65 and older — older Americans also tend to be in con artists' cross hairs.

Crooks tend to find many older individuals both more fearful and more trusting. Both personality traits can make a person more susceptible to fake claims.  

Report scam attempts: Just as you do with other tax-related scams, report any COVID-19 schemes to the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF). You can call the toll-free hotline at 1-866-720-5721 or fill out a the NCDF's online complaint form.

You call can report fraud or theft of a COVID-19 economic relief payment to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA). The best way to do that is with TIGTA's online reporting option at its online coronavirus scam page.

Finally, don't forget about the IRS. You can always report phishing attempts, especially unsolicited efforts to gather tax-related information, to the agency. Simply forward the email to phishing@irs.gov.

Be careful out there everyone. Safeguard both your physical and financial health so we all can make it through the coronavirus pandemic as unscathed as possible.

You also might find these items of interest:

 

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.

 

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