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4 convincing new COVID-19 scams that could cost you

Has your phone been ringing off the hook with robocalls in the past few weeks? Did you notice an uptick in your spam folder recently? Scams are on the rise, and cybercriminals are having a field day playing off everyone’s fears about COVID-19.

From phony cures to stimulus checks, there’s no shortage of topics to lie about in scammers’ quest to make easy money. Tap or click here to see the stimulus scams to watch out for.

Pandemic-related scams are growing in number each week, and now the FTC has identified several new schemes that have already cost people thousands of dollars. Here are some samples of the most popular scams, along with what you can do to stop them.

‘Livin’ in the scammer’s paradise’

We’ve already covered a number of scams making the rounds, but the latest batch circulating through phones, email and phishing sites are some of the nastiest we’ve seen yet. The scams are so bad, in fact, that major tech companies are having trouble keeping up. Google, to its credit, has been blocking around 18 million scam emails per day according to a company blog post on incoming security threats.

To protect yourself, you need to know what signs to watch out for. Here are 4 of the most deceptive new scams targeting folks during COVID-19.

1. Seniors targeted with Social Security and Medicare scams by phone

Seniors face a significantly higher risk when it comes to scams than other demographics, and scammers are keenly aware of this fact. Not all seniors are fully aware of the more sinister tricks performed by scammers, such as area code spoofing.

There’s also the fact that many seniors rely on government support via Social Security or Medicare, which provides excellent cover for a convincing scam call. In two kinds of scam calls, perpetrators masquerade as a representative from the Social Security Administration or Medicare, with an “urgent” alert that services will be suspended unless you call back. Listen to an example of the call below:

Social Security Administration scam | FTC

In another variation, Medicare recipients will be informed that testing kits are available and that they should speak to a representative as soon as possible to get their hands on one.

Medicare Coronavirus testing kits | FTC

If you listen closely to the first audio sample, you can hear the male voice stumbling over pronouncing certain words. It doesn’t sound like an accent, though, but a fake, computerized voice like Siri on your phone. Text to speech engines are a common tool used by robocall scammers.

The other clip, however, features a distinct accent on the part of the speaker. This can mean the caller isn’t calling from within the U.S., as many scam operations are based overseas.

If it doesn’t sound right, you’re probably dealing with a scammer. This goes on top of the fact that most government agencies only reach out to beneficiaries by mail, not phone calls or emails.

2. Shady websites selling test kits, sanitation supplies and quack medical cures

Another type of attack involves malicious websites selling dubious products that cost real money to purchase. And once you check out, there’s very little any authority figures can do. “Let the buyer beware,” indeed.

This scam website with a Russian domain name offers “the fastest coronavirus detection test for an exclusive price of just 19,000 Rubles,” which is approximately $300 U.S. Dollars. This is in addition to other products available, including “vaccine reservations” and pills for reducing symptoms.

Tap or click to see why these drug-peddling sites are not to be trusted.

Unlike Magecart attacks on friendly sites, which hijack the point-of-sale so your card information is harvested, many of these sites are configured this way right from the get-go. Buying anything from them is like handing your card to the scammers directly.

To avoid getting grifted, pay close attention to what the websites look like (if you find yourself linked to one). Poor English or foreign language characters in the website’s text along with items for sale in U.S. dollars doesn’t exactly paint the picture of a legitimate operation.

On top of that, many of these websites are incomplete. They’ll feature unfinished designs in certain locations like footers and “about us” pages, along with links that go nowhere in particular. To this point, we do not recommend poking around deeper into any suspected scam website. Clicking on another link could take you to a site that’s even worse.

If you get an email from anyone inviting you to check out a platform for cures, treatments or tests, don’t fall for it. Even if your friend sends you the link, there’s always the chance their account could have been compromised.

3. Mortgage scams prey on people struggling financially

The economic consequences of COVID-19 are widespread, and the housing market is already feeling the heat. Interest rates have dropped significantly, and scammers are banking on this fact to try and trip up a few more victims in the process. Listen to an example below:

Mortgage refinancing scam | FTC

In this scam call variation, a “real estate” organization will reach out to you by phone or email with promises to refinance your existing mortgage at a lower rate. But as anyone can tell you, providing a total stranger with sensitive banking and property information is beyond dangerous.

If your social security number, bank information or (hopefully not) your property title information is given to a scammer, your entire livelihood could be threatened. It should go without saying, but never engage any entity who calls you over the phone or emails you with such a sensitive matter. If you want to refinance your mortgage, call your bank or a mortgage specialist instead.

If you managed to fall victim to one of these scams, you should consider it an absolute priority. Take steps to call your bank and inform them of potential fraud, and consider freezing your credit to prevent any unauthorized loans from being taken in your name. Tap or click here to find out how to freeze your credit.

4. A Nigerian prince by any other name

Impersonation is a scammer’s bread and butter, and COVID-19 gives them plenty of cover to act as anything from charity workers to impacted taxpayers like you. No matter which form they take, they’ll be sure to give each victim the “royal treatment” — Nigerian royalty to be precise.

The classic “Nigerian Prince” scam involves the con artist asking a victim for bank account access to deposit a large sum of money — in this case, a government “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.

Phone scammers of this variety 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 will allow a scammer to drain your bank account.

For people suffering from economic hardship, the offer can be tempting. Don’t fall for it. Not only is it illegal to deposit a check in someone else’s name, there’s probably no check for you to claim from these frauds in the first place!

In another variant of the scam, the email will claim to come from a charity worker, and will often include copy from official sources like the World Health Organization. You’ll be tricked into giving a donation to a bitcoin wallet, like the one shown above. Sometimes, the emails will even include attachments with “more information,” usually a PDF file.

Opening this file is almost as bad as sending the money. PDF files are notorious for malware, and installing a shady attachment can infect your computer and help it spread these scams even further.

If you get an email asking for money of any sort, avoid opening attachments and don’t click on any links. Even if you feel like being generous during these hard times, you’re better off reaching out to a charity directly.

If you are trusting of emails, calls and texts you receive, you might find yourself in more danger. But by knowing the signs and showing skepticism, you can easily avoid getting ripped off and laugh at these scammer’s half-hearted attempts all the way.

COVID-19 scammers are so cynical and nihilistic that they believe everyone is dumb enough to fall for their nonsense. Let’s work together to prove them wrong.

Stop robocalls for good with Kim’s new eBook

Robocalls interrupt us constantly and scam Americans out of millions of dollars every year. Learn Kim's best tricks for stopping annoying robocalls in this handy guide.

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