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Let's Reminisce: Watch out for COVID-19 scams
By Jerry Lincecum
Jan 11, 2021
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Suppose you get a call from someone claiming to be from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), offering helpful information about COVID-19. It seems legit, but then they ask for something in return—your Social Security number. Your next move? Hang up.

As if the coronavirus outbreak wasn’t stressful enough, thieves have been exploiting the pandemic as a way to rip you off. From January 1 to June 25, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) logged more than 78,000 fraud complaints related to the pandemic, and victims have reported losing more than $97 million. Using emails, texts, phone calls and digital ads to push everything from bogus charities to phony COVID-19 test kits, cyber thieves are employing a variety of tricks in these new attempts to separate you from your money. Here are some scams to watch out for—and how to help prevent them.

Contact tracing text scams. Contact tracing is the important process of tracking down anyone who may have been exposed to the coronavirus, so they can take precautions against spreading it further. State health departments often initiate this process with a text to say that someone will be calling. Scammers have taken note and are sending similar messages, but their texts will ask for money or Social Security numbers, or include a link to a malicious website.

Test kit scams. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized several in-home test kits for COVID-19, most advertised kits have not been approved (and aren’t necessarily accurate). One particular target for this scam is Medicare patients.  Crooks are offering tests in exchange for your Medicare number and other personal information.

Fake fed phishing scams. Phone calls or emails may claim to be from the CDC (your caller ID may even display that name), offering information about the virus in exchange for personal information or a “donation”—a tipoff that you’re not talking with a federal agency.

Medical scams. Be wary of calls or emails from doctors or hospitals claiming to have treated a friend or relative for COVID-19 and demanding payment from you.

Stimulus scams. Anyone due to receive a Covid relief stimulus payment is bound to be anxiously awaiting it; some thieves are claiming they can speed up the process or offer new stimulus payments in exchange for a fee or personal information. Or, posing as IRS agents, they may say you were overpaid and have to “refund” some of the money.

Charity scams. Taking advantage of peoples’ goodwill, thieves are pretending to work for coronavirus-related charities (either real or made up) and asking for donations. Before you give any money, make sure it’s a legitimate charity (check with a watchdog group like Charity Navigator) and then call the organization directly or donate through its website.

Miracle cure scams. There are now vaccines for COVID-19, but that hasn’t stopped crooks from pushing fake products that claim to prevent or cure the virus. Air purifiers? Essential oils? Herbal teas? Fake, fake and fake.

Shopping scams. Nonexistent stores may claim to sell products in high demand, like masks and hand sanitizer. Since they’re just fronts designed to fool consumers, the products never arrive and the website for the “company” eventually disappears.

App scams. Preying on fear and curiosity, scammers have created mobile apps they claim are designed to track the spread of COVID-19. While the app may appear legit—perhaps even using official data—there’s a chance it also includes malware, spyware or ransomware.

College student phishing scams. Beware any email claiming to be from the “Financial Department” of a student’s university, with information about stimulus checks.  Links will take you to a site that may look like the university’s, but only exists to steal your login credentials.

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com