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Scammers want your coronavirus stimulus check – 7 traps to watch for

The coronavirus pandemic shocked our once-booming economy. More than 6.6 million layoffs in the past week alone have left Americans uncertain about the future and desperate for financial assistance.

That’s why the CARES Act was signed into law, which provides aid to affected businesses and workers. In addition to expanded unemployment benefits, most Americans will qualify for direct cash from the federal government to ease their hardship, to the tune of $1,200 per person. Tap or click here to see what you qualify for.

If you’re struggling right now, this cash payment should be coming your way to help very soon. But scams and bogus checks are beating the real thing to the punch. Here are some scams to watch for to protect your bank account and personal info.

1. Fake tax bills, gift cards and more

The IRS is handling the disbursement of funds, which means your stimulus check is directly tied to your 2018 or 2019 tax return. Thankfully, you’ll still qualify even if you owe a bill — but not everyone knows this detail. And that’s just what scammers are banking on to make a quick buck.

Police in Greely, Colorado are receiving reports of scammers telling taxpayers that an outstanding bill is preventing them from getting their stimulus check. To qualify for the stimulus, they’re instructed to pay off the tax debt they owe in the form of gift cards or online payments via services like Paypal.

In another variation of this scam, some have even reported getting fake checks in the mail with instructions to pay a processing fee for faster access to funds. Again, these “fees” are advised to be paid via gift cards or payment services.

As with any online scam, gift card instructions are some of the biggest red flags you can look for. Gift cards are essentially as good as cash, and once they’re spent, it’s almost impossible to get the money back.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that the IRS will never instruct you to pay with anything other than a check or their own payment systems. If you get any kind of check in the mail for whatever reason, keep in mind that the real stimulus checks haven’t even been cut yet. We’ll go over fake checks in more detail below.

2. Fake calls or messages from the U.S. government

The real stimulus checks from the federal government won’t clear for weeks, but that hasn’t stopped hackers from trying to trick people now.

The United States Treasury issued a warning to consumers about fake calls and messages claiming to be from the U.S. government. Here’s what scammers are requesting:

  • Personal financial information like bank account info or Social Security numbers.
  • Advance fees to expedite stimulus check delivery.
  • Charges or payments to send stimulus money, including the purchase of gift cards.

Here’s a big red flag: These emails or phone calls pretend to come from agencies like the IRS, Treasury Department or Social Security Administration. These agencies usually only correspond with taxpayers by snail mail and they never solicit you for private information over phone or email, which is a huge security risk.

3. Fake websites that steal your Social Security number

A new Google report shows a whopping 350% increase in phishing websites since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. Among those are bogus sites posing as pandemic relief programs, and they’re a new low for scammers.

The Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker recently reported a new breed of phishing websites disguised as the U.S. Emergency Grants Federation. No such agency exists and filling out the form can lead to identity theft.

Most people are directed to this and other websites via emails, text messages and phone calls. The website asks for your SSN to “verify your identity” and asks that you pay a small processing fee (the amount varies) to qualify for up to $150,000 in grants.

Interacting with this website is dangerous and all the points it makes are totally false. For starters, $150,000 is more than 10 times the amount most Americans qualify for, which is $1,200 in stimulus funds.

Plus, there’s no sign-up or processing fee required to get your money. If you filed taxes for 2018 or 2019, you don’t need to do anything. The IRS will use direct deposit data or your address from your tax return to send your stimulus money. Tap or click to find out how to get your stimulus check and when it will happen.

4. Social media shenanigans

Social media is a huge source of misinformation and fraud, and it’s the main way these stimulus scammers are spreading their garbage around. The Better Business Bureau reports people on social media are being harassed by profiles play-acting as government agencies or officials.

In one example, a Facebook post urged seniors to apply for a special grant to help pay medical bills. Clicking this link leads to the same phony “Grant Federation” phishing website mentioned above.

In addition to sharing fake websites, scammers will typically masquerade as the IRS or the Social Security Administration. Like other phishing schemes, the messages nag users for private data and banking information, claiming it’s needed to receive funds or verify your identity.

Neither the U.S. government or the IRS will ever reach out to you over Facebook, Twitter or any other social media website. When they do reach out, it will be through physical mail.

5. Expedited processing fees that go nowhere

Another variation of the fake website scam involves “processing fees” that claim to expedite your stimulus check deposit. With rent and utilities due, it’s easy to see why this offer would be tempting.

Like the others, this is a ploy to steal your money. There is no way to speed of the process, which Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speculates will take several weeks into the month of April.

The funds disbursed by the stimulus package are grants and direct cash payments, which require no repayment or fees to access. They wouldn’t be much use to cash-strapped Americans if they did, now would they?

6. Literal fake checks in the mail

Not all the stimulus scams involve shady websites and phishing links. Several people in Florida reported getting what looked like a COVID-19-related stimulus check in the mail for more than $3,000, more than double any of the legitimate checks individuals will receive.

The checks appear to be urgent, with “time-sensitive” and “do not bend” stamps on the envelopes. Upon closer inspection, the checks were just advertisements for a used car lot.

That’s not the only fake check people are seeing. Strange checks with dollar amounts that don’t line up with the official numbers have been found in multiple mailboxes. At this time, no cash has been sent out by the government whatsoever — meaning all these checks are phonies.

7. Are Nigerian princes eligible for the stimulus?

Another classic trick is circulating by mail and phone in light of the stimulus bill. The legendary “Nigerian Prince” scam involves the con artist asking a victim for bank account access to deposit a large sum of money — in this case, their “stimulus check.” The scammer will claim they don’t have a bank account and will offer to give the victim a cut of their funds in exchange for their bank information.

If the scam happens by phone, the con artist will usually claim they have the money already and just need the bank account. If the scam involves a fake check, the victim will be told to deposit the check and call the scammer with bank information so they can make a withdrawal. Doing either of these is extremely dangerous, and will allow the scammer to drain your bank account dry.

It goes without saying, but it’s never a good idea to provide anyone with your bank account information. The odds are much higher that you’re dealing with a scammer instead of a real person. In reality, loose checks can still be cashed at check-cashing stores if a bank account is unavailable. Don’t fall for this one!

Bonus: Costco is in on it too?

Scammers aren’t just masquerading as the federal government. They’re posing as retailers, too. The FBI field office of San Diego reported a bizarre text scam claiming to be from Costco, offering a “unique stimulus package for loyal customers.”

This link won’t save you any money on toilet paper, though. Instead, it just redirects you to a phishing site where the scammers can harvest your personal data.

It’s been said that crises can bring out the best in people, but these scams prove this doesn’t apply to everyone. By knowing what to watch out for, you can stay one step ahead of these scammers before they trick you in your time of need. Here’s hoping that the real stimulus deposits come quickly!

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