Identity thieves are preying on the fears of individuals around the world as coverage regarding the novel coronavirus pandemic, or COVID-19, increases.
Fraudsters are exploiting the opportunity to steal the Personally Identifiable Information (PII), financial information, and even medical information, of those looking for knowledge, protection, and treatment for the viral infection.
Why are scammers taking advantage of the coronavirus outbreak? The answer is, unfortunately, it’s easy. Everyone is looking for the latest updates on the pandemic.
Consumers want to know how COVID-19 will impact their shopping trips, including hard-to-find necessities, store hours, restaurant availability for drive-thru or takeout orders, and the like.
Parents and students are searching for guidance and educational resources while schools are closed, and teachers are looking for ways to support their students while they are out of school unexpectedly.
Employees may be wondering how to juggle the “new normal” of working from home, especially while also taking care of their children or their parents. Or, they may be looking for new sources of income if they’ve experienced a layoff because the coronavirus outbreak has resulted in closing their place of work.
Novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a contagious respiratory illness impacting the lives of billions of people worldwide as governments issue directives for healthcare facilities to take more precautions, for businesses and schools to close, and for individuals to practice safe social distancing or quarantining as needed. While no one can predict how long the coronavirus disruption will continue, we can all take action to protect ourselves and our loved ones against these coronavirus scams targeting our identities, and our wallets.
We’ve gathered some information that can help.
- Malicious Fraudsters Using Coronavirus to Steal Your Sensitive Information
- How do I Recognize a Coronavirus Scam? Real Examples
- Tips to Protect Your Identity from Coronavirus Scams
- Beware of Stimulus Payment Scams
- Fighting Unemployment Benefits Fraud
- Avoid Scams While Job Hunting During Coronavirus
- Stay Safe at Home from Coronavirus Scams
- Watching out for Travel Scams Related to Coronavirus Cancelations
- Protecting the Elderly from Coronavirus Scams
- Where Can I Find Real Information About the Coronavirus
Malicious Fraudsters Using Coronavirus to Steal Your Sensitive Information
Beware of the following coronavirus scams targeting your identity, including your personal, financial, and medical information:
- Fake Websites & Online Shopping Scams
- Phishing and Vishing
- Spoofed Government and Health Organization Communications
- COVID-19 Testing Fraud
- Fake Job Postings
- Conning Seniors
We’ve updated this shareable tip sheet to educate and inform individuals about the six largest COVID-19 scams: https://www.identityforce.com/six-covid-19-scams
How do I Recognize a Coronavirus Scam? Real Examples
Coronavirus scams are being created at a rapid pace. As with many fraud attempts, there are several red flags that can warn you that the offer is a scam and you should not click on any links or enter any personal or financial information.
- Insists that you act now
- Includes a request for personal, financial, or medical information
- Directs you to open attachments and click on links
- Starts off with a generic greeting and has spelling and grammatical errors throughout the message
The following are real examples of phishing emails and text messages asking individuals to click on malicious links in order to learn more about the coronavirus, offering phony products to fight against coronavirus, or any number of ways to separate their victims from their money and their sensitive personal information. You can also view the letters issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) companies selling fraudulent COVID-19 products.
Bogus COVID-19 Testing or Treatments
These fraudsters are attempting to sell questionable protective devices and fake cures at extreme prices to keep you from contracting COVID-19. They are also offering to reserve COVID-19 vaccines for money upfront, which is 100% illegal and deceptive. Such offers of quick testing or preventative treatments with non-FDA or -CDC-approved kits are completely bogus.
The good news here is that law enforcement everywhere is on the alert for these scams, attempting to stop them as rapidly as they appear. Offers like the examples here are being shut down by the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission as soon as they are discovered, and cease and desist letters are being issued by multiple states, along with state and federal lawsuits for false advertising.
Fraudulent COVID-19 Antibody Testing Collects Personal and Medical Information
Scammers are marketing fraudulent coronavirus antibody tests and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) warns consumers they may not only be providing false results, but they are also using the tests to collect personal and medical information. The antibody test is devised to determine if someone has been infected with COVID-19, often with no symptoms, and has developed antibodies for the virus. Beware of individuals offering “free” antibody tests or providing incentives for undergoing testing.
Other indications of an antibody test scam include the promotion of the test through social media ads, unexpected emails, or telephone calls posing as government officials requiring you to take a test or that request personal information to schedule a test. These offers of testing should be viewed even more suspiciously if you have not contacted your own health care professional inquiring about any type of coronavirus test in the first place. All testing is voluntary, says the FBI, so if you’re being coerced into taking a test it’s most definitely someone trying to scam your PII.
Before taking any COVID-19 test, verify your test is approved by the FDA and that your test laboratory is accepted by your health insurance. Do not share sensitive personal and medical information with anyone other than known and trusted medical professionals.
Phony COVID-19 Test Results
A malicious hacker group has initiated a ransomware phishing campaign using coronavirus test results to worm their way into your inbox. Considering over 150 million COVID-19 tests have been administered in the United States, millions of Americans await their results via email every day. Under this scam, individuals are receiving emails with a subject line claiming to be test results with an attachment link to open the sensitive medical record. Once clicked, malware is downloaded into the victim’s device and encrypts the stored data in the device. The hacker group then demands payment, some as much as 50 Bitcoin (currently equivalent to $700,000), to release the device’s data.
If you are taking a COVID-19 test, verify with the test administrator how you will receive your results and what the sender’s email address will be. Whether you check your email from your computer or mobile device, it’s critical to avoid clicking on links or downloading attachments without fully inspecting the message. Pay special attention to the messaging, no matter how convincing it may look, and confirm the sender’s email matches what you were told. Protecting your computer with anti-virus and other PC protection tools, and your phone with mobile device protection, can be the first line of defense in safeguarding your sensitive information against a ransomware scam.
Early COVID-19 Vaccine Access Scams
As COVID-19 vaccines are approved by the FDA, they will first be distributed to healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities, per recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As states prepare vaccination distribution plans to the public, beware of scammers claiming to have vaccine doses for sale, early access lists, and other fraudulent vaccine claims.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns consumers to ignore any calls, emails, or texts with promises of access to the vaccine and other treatments for COVID-19, especially if you are asked to provide your Social Security number (SSN), medical insurance information and payment information. To stay up to date on the roll-out of the vaccine, please confirm with your state or local government websites for more information.
Fake CDC Phishing Email
An email pretending to be from the CDC, warning of new outbreaks of coronavirus in your area, is using links disguised as legitimate CDC sites to trick people into clicking, potentially unleashing malware, spyware, or taking them to a spoofed website and requesting personal or sensitive information.
COVID-19 Free Money or Product Text Message Scams
These text messages are from fraudsters offering free phones or money to help during the coronavirus outbreak. Keep in mind, bad actors are already making moves to “pre-approve” you for $1000 in coronavirus aid. Do not fall for these claims. Fraudsters are relying on financial fear to play off the U.S. federal government COVID-19 economic stimulus package, officially known as the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act” or CARES Act, as a way to swindle you out of your own money and financial information.
Clicking on mobile phishing links, also known as SMS phishing, or smishing, allows scammers to hack into your phone, leaving it vulnerable to malware and spyware, granting them access to all of your personal information stored within your device.
Charitable COVID-19 Donation Scams
It’s no secret that scammers use natural disasters and other events to take advantage of your generosity, and they may use names that sound a lot like the names of real charities or organizations looking for donations. Scammers may also use crowdfunding sites to raise money in a charity’s name that they have no intention of actually sending to the listed charity.
When donating to a COVID-19 relief charity, remember to check the creator’s profile and try to confirm the authenticity by registration status. Look for valid endorsements of the fundraising efforts through searching for credible reviews. Be cautious of those charities that show up overnight, especially on social media sites or in a suspicious email, and avoid sharing personal and financial details on these sites. Examine the site’s fraud protection measures — all legitimate sources will have these in place. Also, consider donating using a credit card to easily dispute a fraudulent charity. And if a charity is requesting donations by bitcoin, that is a definite red flag.
Fake Coronavirus Crisis-Related Job Posting
Scammers are targeting people with false job listings related to a growing need in the medical community because of the COVID-19 outbreak. These types of bogus job offers are a way for thieves to access your PII, such as Social Security number or bank account information, as part of the job application and onboarding process.
Fake World Health Organization (WHO) Phishing Email
A scammer pretending to be the World Health Organization, sending emails with malicious attachments. These email attachments can launch an attack on your computer, including dangerous malware, ransomware, or other trojan software designed to steal information or destroy data.
Fake COVID-19 Exposure Text Messages
Scammers are sending a text message that claims you’ve been in contact with a victim of COVID-19 warning that you should get tested or self-quarantine and directs you to click on a link for more information. No matter how scary these fake exposure messages may seem, do not click on the link.
Again, phishing links within the text are malicious and target the personal information in your mobile device.
Coronavirus Fear Inducing Spam Email
An e-commerce site attempting to profit from coronavirus concerns, full of questionable links to other spammy sites. Clicking on these links may introduce malware, ransomware, take you to spoof sites that capture your payment credentials, or perpetuate the use of your email address for more spam.
Tips to Protect Your Identity from Coronavirus Scams
We are continuously watching and reporting on new and changing fraud methods being used by identity thieves and cybercriminals. Review the following blogs for information and actionable tips to defend against a variety of scams and vulnerabilities, and protect yourself and your family from the fallout of identity theft:
- Phishing Scams: How to Protect Yourself
- Hang up on Phone Scams
- Protect Your Family’s Digital Footprint
- Mobile Device Security Tips
- Secure Smart Devices
- Social Media Identity Theft Tips
Beware of Stimulus Payment Scams
Thieves are relying on the public’s financial stress and fear, and are using the U.S. federal government’s COVID-19 economic stimulus package as a way to swindle you out of your own money and financial account information. Starting in late April 2020, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) began depositing stimulus checks, or what is officially known as Economic Impact Payments related to the CARES act, into the direct deposit account previously provided on tax returns. In January 2021, the second round of Economic Impact Payments began delivery to taxpayers, and there are talks of additional stimulus payments to follow quickly if a new bill is approved by a new congress. If no direct deposit information is attached to your tax identity, they mailed a paper check.
In mid-April 2020, the IRS launched a secure portal on IRS.gov for taxpayers to provide their direct deposit information, so be aware of spoofed websites trying to take advantage of this service to fraudulently capture financial and personal data.
Also, be aware of criminals, or even landlord’s looking for rent checks, with access to your Social Security number, date of birth, and address, that may fraudulently gain access to your stimulus check tracking through the IRS portal. If scammers with this information can see your payment is pending or has an issue date, they may ramp up their targeting efforts to swindle you out of your money or try to redirect the payment into their own account.
The IRS will not call or email to ask individuals to verify their payment details, including retired individuals or those receiving Social Security payments. This bears repeating, the IRS will NOT email you about tax filings or stimulus payments — but IBM Security research found that 35% of people said they would expect the IRS to contact them by email. Their research also discovered over 50% of respondents would click on email links or open an attachment if the subject was in regards to a stimulus check payment.
The U.S. government is advising that individuals should not give out bank account, debit account, or PayPal account information — even if someone claims it’s necessary to get the stimulus check — as it is 100% certain to be a scam.
Unemployment Benefits Fraud
Unemployment scams have become more lucrative during COVID-19, as states are providing unemployed workers with an additional $600 a week in unemployment insurance benefits as part of the CARES Act through at least July 2020. A clear sign of these benefits being targeted by fraudsters, the Identity Theft Resource Center has received more complaints of unemployment identity theft in the first two weeks of May this year as they did in all of 2019. Certain states, such as Washington, Massachusetts, Florida, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island, have seen a particularly heightened increase of fraudulent unemployment claims, catching hundreds of thousands of individuals off-guard, and bilking millions of dollars from the system with false claims.
The imposter scam, using stolen personal information to apply for unemployment payments, has also become easier to accomplish since manual verification processes have been suspended during social distancing restrictions. This type of identity fraud is hard to detect if you are currently employed and is often not caught until you are denied benefits upon filing legitimately, or you receive a letter in the mail.
If you do receive an unexpected letter from your state unemployment insurance office, detailing unemployment claims using your personal information (Social Security number, birth date, name, or address) that you have not made, you should report the suspected fraud immediately. File a complaint with the FTC, file a non-emergency police report so you have documentation of the suspected identity theft, notify your current and former employers for the past 18 months, and consider placing credit freezes with all three major consumer credit bureaus. While a credit freeze won’t stop the majority of identity theft from occurring, it can alert you to suspicious activity and is an important part of layered protection against identity crime.
Job Listing Scams Targeting the Unemployed
As the United States faces unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression, scammers are seeing an opportunity to cash in with employment scams. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis in December, over 13,000 job listing scams have been reported to the Better Business Bureau.
If it is too good to be true, the employment opportunity is probably a job scam targeting your personal information — specifically, your Social Security number — or your banking details. Red flags of an employment scam include a job that requires an upfront fee, either for a background check or work equipment, or asks for your bank account number for direct deposits before you even interview. These requirements are all ploys targeting your financial information.
Do not click on links or attachments within emails with job offers that you didn’t request, or are from an unknown source. Take caution if communications feel urgent, or you are rushed to send proof of documentation and tax forms before holding an interview or signing a contract. During social distancing requirements, legitimate organizations will conduct phone or video conference interviews if in-person interviews are not an option, and most will require more than one so you can meet with multiple people.
Stay Safe at Home from Coronavirus Scams
As everyone across the U.S. is being encouraged to stay home, individuals and families are looking for ways to keep entertained. Scammers know that being stuck at home during the coronavirus outbreak is the perfect time to pose as streaming services, such as Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime, and they are sending text messages and emails falsely advertising “free premium service” due to social distancing.
Links within these fake messages may contain malware that harms your devices and steals your personal information. Submitting your payment credentials through these links may also put you at risk for credit card fraud and other financial crimes.
Watching out for Travel Scams Related to Coronavirus Cancelations
With travel restrictions in place globally, travelers are attempting to sort out refunds for previously booked trips and companies are struggling to deal with the fallout. Flight and cruise deals are popping up with extreme discounts, but not all are legitimate. When a price or an offer seems too good to be true, it often is. Always book directly through the airline or hotel website to avoid being misled by fraudulent third-party travel sites.
Before booking your next trip during the coronavirus crisis, consider the company’s cancelation policy before submitting your payment and read the fine print in the travel insurance policy. You may need to cancel or reschedule your travel plans and will want to ensure you can get your money back or receive credit for future travel.
Protecting the Elderly from Coronavirus Scams
The global senior population has been declared the most vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic. Scammers are targeting the elderly with phone call scams claiming to be fake charities, health organizations offering vaccines, or house cleaning services to help sanitize against the coronavirus.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) warns that social distancing efforts also mean that people 65 and older aren’t engaging with as many friends, neighbors, and senior service providers during this time. It’s more important than ever to check in with your elderly friends and neighbors by phone or video chat, to warn them of the methods scammers are using to steal money, including Social Security checks and pending Economic Impact Payments related to COVID-19 (stimulus checks.) Strangers may offer to run errands, and then make off with their money. Also, beware of online sellers who advertise hard-to-find cleaning or medical supplies at extreme markups that then never arrive.
Remind your loved ones that they should never give our personal, financial, or medical information over the phone (known as vishing scams.) Legitimate government agencies are not calling individuals to “reserve” a COVID-19 vaccine, and they are not offering a check or direct transfer of money as a fiscal stimulus.
Where Can I Find Real Information About the Coronavirus?
With news and advice being freely — and often questionably — shared all over social media, it can be difficult to wade through the noise surrounding the coronavirus outbreak. It is important to only listen to genuine, credible, and expert sources dedicated to sharing the latest updates on the pandemic.
These trusted official government websites are dedicated to sharing the following information related to novel coronavirus (COVID-19):
- Symptoms of the COVID-19 coronavirus
- What to do if you believe you have the coronavirus
- Steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19
- Why coronavirus is so dangerous
- How COVID-19 is treated
- What are the latest updates on coronavirus (COVID-19)
- How the coronavirus spreads and how to protect yourself
- Total number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and the world
- Latest travel bans related to COVID-19
- How to keep work, schools, and businesses safe during coronavirus outbreak
- Recommendations on social distancing and coronavirus quarantines
- When coronavirus stimulus payments are expected to be distributed
- How the COVID-19 financial stimulus, or Economic Impact Payments, will be sent
- Additional federal resources for individuals and businesses during COVID-19 shutdowns
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – https://www.cdc.gov/
World Health Organization (WHO) – https://www.who.int/
USA.gov – https://www.usa.gov/coronavirus/
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – https://www.fda.gov/home
Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/
U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) – https://www.sec.gov/investor/alerts
Internal Revenue Service (IRS) – https://www.irs.gov/
IdentityForce delivers ongoing monitoring, rapid alerts, and recovery services to help protect against ID theft. If you think you are a victim of identity theft, don’t hesitate to reach out to our team to learn more about how we can help protect all that you’ve built.