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As the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic strains finances and health worldwide, scammers are using this time of crisis to try to take advantage of consumers.
It's natural to experience anxiety during this uncertain time, but it also may be more important than ever to be vigilant and empower yourself to avoid becoming a victim of fraud. Here's what you can do to help keep your finances and personal information safe.
COVID-19 Scams to Watch Out For
At a time when empathy and compassion are sorely needed, criminals would rather exploit the situation with targeted scams to steal money, personal information and more. While these scams have been around for a long time, cybercriminals are putting a new spin on them at a time when many are vulnerable.
"Scammers are taking advantage of the COVID-19 public health crisis to try and spread their own contagion—cyberattacks that threaten businesses, governments, consumers and even children," says Jennifer Leuer, CEO of cyber security firm CyberScout.
"Just like practicing good personal hygiene, cyber hygiene should be front and center in the minds of all Americans," Leuer says. "We urge consumers to pause before clicking links, opening attachments or visiting websites, and to adopt a few simple best practices like using long, strong and unique passwords to protect themselves from cybercrime."
Read on to learn which scams you need to protect yourself against right now.
Phishing emails and text messages are communications that claim to be from legitimate organizations but really are from cybercriminals trying to sneak in among the sheer avalanche of information that's being shared about the coronavirus.
For example, you may receive an email or text message that looks like it's from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), your bank or a news agency providing you with updates or statistics about the situation.
But if you click on a link or attachment from the email, you could end up downloading malicious software onto your computer or phone. Thieves can use the malware to take over your device, track your keystrokes or even access your personal and financial data. Or, the links may take you to a legitimate-looking webpage set up by fraudsters where you'll be asked to enter personal information.
Some ways you can protect yourself from phishing attacks:
- Always delete emails that ask for personal information.
- Check the sender's email address to make sure it matches the organization that's supposedly emailing or texting you.
- Hover over all links in the email and look at the bottom of your screen to see where they lead; be skeptical of URLs that don't match the website of the organization in question.
- Avoid opening any email attachment unless you know you can trust the sender; even still, exercise caution as scam artists could be posing as a friend of yours to gain your trust.
- Watch out for spelling and grammatical mistakes, as well as generic greetings; companies you deal with on a regular basis will know your name.
- Avoid any email that insists that you make a decision about something quickly, especially if that decision requires you to click on links or attachments.
If you think correspondence from an organization may be legitimate but don't want to risk it, initiate communication with the organization in question yourself to remove any doubt.
If you're using the video conferencing platform Zoom for business meetings or to get some face time with family and friends, watch out for meeting crashers.
This practice, recently dubbed "zoombombing," involves invaders gaining access to Zoom meetings via publicly accessible links. They then use the platform's screen-sharing feature to show pornographic images and write vulgar messages via the chat function.
More dangerous, some people have reported invaders sending malware through Zoom's file transfer feature, which, if downloaded, can allow them to gain access to your computer and steal your personal information.
Here are some steps you can take to prevent zoombombing:
- Disable the screen share and file transfer features by default.
- If you're the meeting host, assign a co-host to help moderate the meeting, especially if you won't be able to attend on time.
- Lock the meeting once everyone is in attendance.
- Consider disabling the virtual background feature, which zoombombers can use to show inappropriate images.
Information About Government Checks
In response to the crisis, federal legislators recently passed a sweeping $2 trillion government stimulus package that includes direct payments to most Americans. While the details about how and when everyone who qualifies will receive their payment are still being ironed out, cybercriminals are using the uncertainty to their advantage.
This scam comes in the form of an email, text, phone call or website asking for personal or financial information to receive stimulus funds. But government officials have warned that these requests are bogus, as are services that can supposedly expedite your government check (for a fee)—or provide relief with any other aspect of your financial situation for that matter.
If you hand over any personal information, scammers could use it to steal your identity, open credit accounts in your name and do several other things that could cause lasting damage to your financial health.
The truth is that the federal government already has the information necessary to get you your money. You do not need to submit an application or fill out any forms to get your check. If you've filed your tax return electronically or have otherwise provided the IRS with your bank information, the stimulus funds will be deposited directly into your account automatically. Others will receive a paper check to their home address.
Check the IRS Coronavirus Tax Relief page for more details, and if you don't receive the money, the agency will provide a phone number you can call.
Appeals for Donations
As the finances of many workers and businesses are at risk, those fortunate enough to maintain some financial stability may be looking for ways to donate money to people in need. But this is, unfortunately, another area where con artists may be looking to turn a profit off the situation.
The U.S. Department of Justice recently noted reports of scams that involve people soliciting donations to illegitimate charitable organizations.
These requests often ramp up the pressure and seek payment as quickly as possible, before the victim has time to second-guess it. Solicitations likely won't provide much information about the organization, and may be scant on the details regarding how the money will be used. If you hand over your payment information, the thief could use it to make unauthorized purchases on your account.
To avoid this scam, it's generally a good idea to never give money over the phone or email. Always research a charitable organization before donating—websites Charity Navigator and GuideStar provide data about legitimate nonprofit organizations, and if the one asking you for money isn't listed, it's likely a scam.
Offers for Treatment
You may receive an email or some other form of communication from someone offering to sell you treatments for the disease. If you or someone you know has the disease or you're afraid you'll contract it, these supposed treatments can seem like a godsend.
But according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are currently no approved vaccines, drugs or investigational products available to treat or prevent COVID-19. The same goes for in-home test kits.
So if you receive a message or phone call or see an online advertisement for treatment, you can know right away that it's a scam—there is no gray area.
Instead, follow guidance from your local officials regarding staying indoors and if you must go out for work or to resupply, do what the CDC recommends to prevent infection:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after you've been in a public place or have coughed, sneezed or blown your nose.
- Use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol when soap and water are not available.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth unless you've just washed your hands.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Put distance between yourself and others—at least six feet.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces you touch frequently.
- Stay at home if you're sick.
Sale of In-Demand Products
The COVID-19 crisis has millions of people staying at home and taking other precautions to slow the spread of the virus—and that's exactly what government officials and health experts recommend, especially if you're sick or immunocompromised.
But a byproduct of that is that some essential products, including toilet paper, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and medical supplies have become hard to find as people buy in bulk, preparing to settle in for the long haul. The prospect of running out of these supplies (especially medicine) can be frightening, but resist the allure of advertisements showing these in-demand products for sale online. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Knowing whom you're buying from is a good idea whenever you're shopping online, but it's even more important right now as scammers try to exploit vulnerable consumers. If you see an offer for in-demand products, check the website to see if it's a familiar retailer. If you don't recognize the seller, it could be a front intended to steal your payment information.
If you're struggling to get the supplies you need, many retailers across the country are offering special morning hours for seniors and immunocompromised people who need them but don't want to risk going out during normal hours when stores may be crowded.
You may also want to ask family members or friends to purchase necessary supplies for you.
Protect Your Children
As an adult, it's easier to spot potential scams. But as your children are home more and may be using tablets and computers throughout the day, take some time to educate them on how to stay safe and secure.
According to CyberScout, use the acronym PAUSE:
- Passwords: Make sure you have strong passwords on your child's online accounts, and consider using a password manager like 1Password or Lastpass to help them keep track. If possible, also consider using two-factor authentication, which can utilize your phone number or email address to make sure it's you who's logging in.
- Ask a parent: Encourage your child to ask a parent if they receive an email or some other message asking them to open a link or attachment.
- Updates: Set up your software and security updates to happen automatically. If you opt to trigger them manually and forget, the device could be at risk.
- Secure: Teach your children to always check the URL of every website they visit to ensure it begins with HTTPS. Also, keep in mind that not all HTTPS websites are secure, so think about creating some parental controls to restrict which websites your child can visit.
- Examine for errors: Talk to your children about being cautious with every email or online message they receive. Encourage them to look for spelling or grammatical errors, and, again, have them ask you if they're not sure about something.
Keep an Eye on Your Credit During the Crisis
Even if you don't think you've fallen victim to a COVID-19 scam, it's important to check your credit regularly to make sure your information hasn't somehow fallen into the wrong hands. Experian's free credit monitoring service can help you stay on top of your credit score and report, monitor your spending and detect identity theft sooner via daily alerts.
If you're not in the process of applying for new credit and don't plan to in the near future, you might want to consider freezing your credit until things calm down. While a credit freeze will not prevent your identity from being stolen, it can help stop identity thieves if they try to apply for credit in your name.
To keep a close eye on your credit, you can view your credit report from each of the three national credit reporting agencies every 12 months through AnnualCreditReport.com. By staggering your requests every four months, you can check your reports periodically for any items that you don't recognize. Through Experian, you can view your credit report for free every 30 days.
Please also note that Experian will never call you to discuss interest rates or offer direct loan or credit card relief. If you receive a call or email that purports to be from Experian and offers these services, ignore it.
These steps can go a long way in providing you with some peace of mind as well as some protection from identity thieves.