The email seemed to come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), encouraging you to click a link to sign up for notices about coronavirus tests available in your community and make a credit card donation to support research to find a cure. It seemed like a real message from the CDC.
Afterall, the coronavirus outbreak is threatening the health and well-being of hundreds of thousands of people around the globe, with more than 200,000 cases confirmed in the U.S. and growing. Why wouldn’t the CDC need help in battling this pandemic?
Too often, those emails aren’t legit, and falling for them can run the risk of your personal identification and bank or credit card information being stolen. Fraudsters are preying on your generosity and trying to trick you as you seek to support health care efforts, or they are trying to leverage fear and confusion to steal from coronavirus patients, stimulus check recipients, those scared of being infected, supporters, insurers and others.
“Disasters have the potential to bring out the best in people,” said Howard Silverstone, CPA, CFF. “Unfortunately, disasters also bring out the worst in some people, and we are seeing that now with scammers using the COVID-19 outbreak to try to steal personal information and money from those who want to help.”
Coronavirus scammers are channeling schemes similar to those perpetrated in the wake of natural disasters, including:
- Charity Fraud: Unscrupulous individuals create fake charities or charitable causes and solicit donations from those wishing to help victims recover.
- Phishing and Identity Theft: Bad actors scour disaster damage for personal information left behind and use it to steal a true victim’s identity.
- Theft via Scam products: People sell low-quality or imitation products. In light of the coronavirus outbreak, this could mean lower quality health products. The Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration, earlier this month, issued a warning to several companies whose products claimed to prevent or cure the coronavirus.
You don’t have to fall for these scams.
“Being vigilant in monitoring email, double checking links and information and making sure you are communicating with legitimate organizations and individuals can help reduce your risk of being taken advantage of,” said Silverstone. “If you aren’t sure, double check with someone you trust.”
CPA fraud experts offer these tips to help Americans navigate these potential scams and avoid being targeted:
- Be wary of emails, calls or text messages requesting donations from government and health care organizations. Many fraudsters use CDC, World Health Organization and other seemingly legit logos to steal money and personal information. It’s always best to go directly to their websites, rather than following a link in an email that seems like it came from the organization.
- Watch out for miracle cures or preventative remedies. Some scammers are trying to sell fake cures, vaccines, masks or test kits. Only purchase materials from reputable sellers or manufacturers.
- Be on guard if you receive a phone call or text message from unknown individuals asking for donations; independently verify the organization by searching for them online. Or focus charitable efforts on well-known organizations.
- Look for missing on unfamiliar bills that could indicate identity theft.
Don’t get scammed out of your Stimulus Check
The federal government is in the process of delivering cash to many U.S. citizens to help stimulate the economy, providing tax credits to individuals of $1,200 ($2,400 for joint filers) plus $500 for each qualifying child. For those struggling to pay bills or who have lost their jobs, these payments can help them stay afloat during these extraordinary times, but also providing scammers another incentive and audience to target.
“Scammers prey on people’s emotions and weaknesses,” said Silverstone. “Right now, people haven’t been going to work every day. They’re home with the kids. They’re stressed. They may have lost their jobs. They need that money. Scammers know this and are preying on it.”
Scammers are leveraging several tools to try to separate individuals from that cash — most notably phishing emails, phone calls and texts. Fraudsters use these communications to spur people to provide personal information, falsely claiming the IRS needs to confirm Social Security numbers, bank account numbers or addresses before making payment. Once scammers have that information, they can steal money and identities.
Silverstone warns that the IRS never calls and never emails. Unless you’ve received notice via postal mail, any communications claiming to be from the IRS are likely fraudulent.
“For most of the people receiving this money, the IRS already has your information,” said Silverstone, adding that individuals should not respond to phone calls, emails or texts regarding payments.
Another tell-tale sign is the language used in communications. While the media and general public may refer to the $1,200 tax credits as “stimulus payments” or “stimulus checks,” the federal government does not use that terminology. Rather, the IRS refers to them as “Economic Impact Payments.”
“If you see things about the stimulus payment, it’s not from the IRS,” said Silverstone.
Don’t be taken in by a phony charity
It’s natural to want to help others and donate to charity during times like these. Fraudsters know this, and they will create fake charitable organizations or fraudulent solicitations to try to steal your money and personal information.
But by remaining vigilant and taking some small precautions, you can still support true charitable organizations without being scammed.
“Never click on a link in an email or text. Scammers often create messages and webpages that look like they are from real charities but are designed to steal your personal information and money,” said Silverstone. “If you want to support a charity, research them, look them up, and go directly to their website to donate.”
Websites like Guidstar.org and CharityNavigator.org track and report on various nonprofit organizations to help donors remain confident they are donating to legitimate organizations. The IRS also offers the ability to search for Tax Exempt organizations to determine if your donation is tax deductible.
Donors are also advised to avoid cash donations. Rather, they should pay by credit card or check, so they can better track where their money is going and withhold payment, if necessary.
Also, be wary of crowdfunded charitable campaigns. While some sites, like GoFundMe, have strict procedures for vetting charities and protections for donors, others do not. So be sure to conduct your due diligence before donating to a crowdfunded charitable campaign.
The Federal Trade Commission offers tips and resources to avoid charity scams, including:
- Don’t let anyone rush you into making a donation. That’s something scammers do.
- Some scammers try to trick you into paying them by thanking you for a donation that you never made.
- Scammers can change caller ID to make a call look like it’s from a local area code.
- Some scammers use names that sound a lot like the names of real charities. This is one reason it pays to do some research before giving.
- Scammers make lots of vague and sentimental claims but give no specifics about how your donation will be used.
- Bogus organizations may claim that your donation is tax-deductible when it is not.
There are several additional resources to help individuals stay ahead of fraud scams like these.
The American Institute of CPA’s Forensic and Litigation Services Fraud Task Force offers a series of reports on how to identify and avoid different scams. The recently released “Preventing Disaster Fraud – The winds of Change,” offers a variety of tips useful during the coronavirus pandemic.
The FTC also offers information about coronavirus scams and how to avoid them.
And for more information about the coronavirus itself and how to stay healthy during this time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers several tips.