If nothing else, scammers are persistent. They’re always looking for ways to use current events to play on your fears and take advantage of uncertainty. And that’s true during the coronavirus pandemic too.
Coronavirus scams run the gamut of fraud—from bogus COVID-19 cures to criminals pretending to be government officials to work-from-home jobs that are too good to be true. You can protect yourself by understanding what scammers are after, and the tactics they use, and staying abreast of the latest scams officials uncover.
Here are some of the coronavirus scams to watch out for—and how you can avoid becoming a victim.
“Free” virus test kits
People are understandably desperate to know whether they have the virus, and scammers know this. Older adults (many of whom are on Medicare) have even more reason to worry since they are most at risk of experiencing an extreme case of the illness. But if you receive an unsolicited phone call, text, email, or in-person offer for a free virus test kit, don’t be fooled.
Scammers ask you to reveal personal information, such as your social security number, birth date, or Medicare number for a test kit they never plan to send you. Instead, the fraudsters use the information you reveal to steal your identity or run up fraudulent Medicare charges under your name.
There are no Medicare programs (or any other health programs) that send you free, unsolicited coronavirus tests.
You can be tested if you visit a doctor, urgent care, or an emergency room while exhibiting symptoms. There might also be drive-through testing centers in your area, but you’ll need to call for an appointment and confirm you have symptoms first.
And remember: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only those who show symptoms should be tested.1
Unapproved cures or treatments
The COVID-19 pandemic has left people searching for ways to cure it. Several companies have begun fraudulently claiming their products do exactly that.
A website touts a product or products—such as herbal supplements or teas, essential oils, tinctures, or colloidal silver—that can supposedly cure or prevent COVID-19. All you need to achieve peace of mind is a credit card number.
Currently, there are no known cures or preventatives for the new coronavirus, other than avoiding exposure to the virus altogether. There are several vaccines in the works, but they aren’t expected to be ready for at least 18 months, and experts still aren’t sure they’ll work.
On March 9, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned several companies to stop making false claims about their products,2 and has since maintained a steadily growing list of fraudulent COVID-19 products hawked by scammers.
If you think you have coronavirus, don’t turn to the internet for a miracle cure—call your doctor, a nurse helpline, urgent care, or an emergency room provider.
Fake stimulus checks
On March 25, the federal government approved a $2 trillion stimulus package that includes delivering $1,200 to eligible citizens.3 Unfortunately, scammers are using this much-needed relief to steal your personal information.
Posing as Internal Revenue Service (IRS) officials, scammers pressure people to give up their social security numbers, birthdates, bank account numbers, and other personal information to receive their stimulus checks. You may receive a phone call or email that seems legitimate, but don’t let the fear of missing out on your check convince you to compromise your data.
Federal officials are still working out how to deliver stimulus funds to citizens, but no one will ask you for personal information to sign up for a check. And no third party has early access to this money, so don’t be fooled.
Provided you filed income taxes for either 2018 or 2019, the IRS will simply mail a check to your address or deposit the funds into your bank account, depending on whether you’ve paid your taxes or received a return via check or direct deposit in the past.
If you’re receiving Social Security or Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) benefits and don’t have to file taxes, you also don’t need to do anything to receive stimulus money.4
If you are concerned about receiving your funds, go directly to the IRS website. The IRS will update this page with information on stimulus checks as it becomes available.
Fake coronavirus tracking apps
If you’re like me, you check the news several times per day to find out if there are new cases of coronavirus nearby. It’s almost like checking the weather. Staying informed is a great way to keep yourself and loved ones safe, but scammers take advantage of that desire.
Recently, a fake app for Android smartphones called “corona live 1.1” was discovered. The app promises to give you live updates of coronavirus cases and deaths near you, but instead uses your location, camera, photos, and videos to spy on you.
This fraudulent app infringes on your privacy and may allow you to unwittingly share personal information with whoever is listening in.
When discovered, fraudulent apps are generally removed from app stores such as Google Play or the Apple App Store, but new ones may pop up faster than authorities can take them down.
Johns Hopkins University and Medicine (a legitimate organization) does offer a coronavirus tracking map with accurate, up-to-date coronavirus information on its website, but you don’t have to download anything to use it. The Guardian and the New York Times also have legitimate COVID-19 maps.
Online shopping scams
Fraudsters have long used the internet to scam online shoppers, but during the coronavirus pandemic, they’re focusing on products that people are desperate to get their hands on.
While legitimate stores are low on toilet paper, bottled water, food staples, and face masks, scammers claim to have them in spades. But they just take your money (often through untraceable forms, such as gift cards or bitcoin) and never send you what you think you’ve bought.
Food and supply shortages are real, but supply chains are reliable, so stores will replenish their shelves. Unfortunately, delivery timelines are longer than usual due to limited staffing at stores and an explosion of online orders. If you can wait for Amazon, Walmart, or other legitimate online retailers to send you what you need, do so.
If you can’t wait, consider asking a low-risk relative or friend to pick up what you need from the store and leave the items on your doorstep. If you choose to buy online and aren’t sure whether a website is legitimate, use the Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines for identifying and avoiding fraudulent online businesses.
Scams offering remote work
With record numbers of people laid off, furloughed, or working from home, fraudsters have developed work-from-home scams designed to mine your personal information.
You get a phone call, email or text offering the promise of a job you can perform without leaving your home. And the “hiring process”requires an upfront investment or the disclosure of personal information.
Or someone posing a corporate employee sends you an email from a company address asking you to reveal personal information or company secrets. Or they try to convince you to download software (that turns out to be malware) to access your company’s network.
The goal of scams like this is usually to steal your money or identity. But in many cases, scammers hope to access company records and acquire entire lists of social security numbers or funds directly from your company.
Protect yourself, your company, and fellow employees by using caution while working or applying for jobs at home. If you see a job opening that’s vague, too good to be true, or doesn’t allow you to speak to a real person before you start, it might be a scam. And if you receive a company email asking for personal information or prompting you to download software, double-check with your boss.
Coronavirus is upsetting businesses worldwide, resulting in falling markets and widespread uncertainty among investors. Many people are looking to move their money into safe-haven investments to stem the bleeding of their investment accounts.
Taking advantage of the panic, scammers try to convince people to move their money to “no risk” investments. Perpetrators may be straight-up thieves, stealing any funds you deposit. Or they may offer a legitimate investment but fraudulently downplay the risks to convince you to invest. Either way, you could end up losing money to these schemes.
If you see claims for safe, high-return investments—even if they claim to be insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)—be suspicious. No investment is 100% safe. Even bonds, which tend to rise in value during economic downturns, aren’t guaranteed.
If you want to pull out of the stock market (and many experts recommend that you don’t5), the safest place for your money is in a bank account that’s insured by the FDIC. However, the FDIC limits insurance to $250,000 per depositor per FDIC-insured bank.6 If your nest egg is more substantial, consider spreading it among several banks instead of depositing it all into a single account.
Coronavirus safety tips
The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired a whole host of scams designed to steal your money or your identity. Even though the specific scams may be new, fraudsters tend to use the same tried-and-true tactics to defraud consumers. To avoid potential scams of all kinds, now and in the future, use the following tips:
- Guard your personal, financial, medical, and company information. Don’t give this information to unsolicited callers, emailers, websites, or people you meet in person.
- Independently verify a solicitor’s identity. Double-check the legitimacy of any caller, emailer, or website by using separately obtained information, such as contact information from the organization’s official website. Call government officials back using an official phone number. Instead of clicking links in emails you receive, type email addresses of banks and government agencies directly into the URL bar yourself.
- Stay up to date on the latest coronavirus scams. We’ll update this page with new scams as we learn of them, so keep checking back. You can also monitor the FTC website for new findings or sign up for scam alerts.
What to do if you get scammed
If you fall victim to fraud, don’t be embarrassed. It happens to the best of us. Instead, act quickly. As soon as you realize what’s occurred, call your bank or credit card company to try to stop the payment. You might need to close some or all of your accounts and open new ones. Change any compromised passwords too.
Once you do these things, report the scam to the FTC using its Complaint Assistant. And if you think your social security number is compromised, use the FTC’s resources on identity theft to set things right.
Stay safe from scams
The coronavirus has made the world a scarier place, and scammers are only making things worse. But not all is lost. You’re already started protecting yourself by reading this report.
It’s more important than ever to be aware of Medicare scams, too, so you can protect your benefits when you need them most. So check out our Medicare Scam Report.
Finally, stay in regular contact with loved ones, even if that’s over the phone or the internet, so you can look out for each other. Stay safe out there.
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Testing for COVID-19”
2 US Food and Drug Administration, “Coronavirus Update: FDA and FTC Warn Seven Companies Selling Fraudulent Products that Claim to Treat or Prevent COVID-19”
3 New York Times, “Senate Approves $2 Trillion Stimulus After Bipartisan Deal”
4 Federal Trade Commission, “Want to Get Your Coronavirus Relief Check? Scammers Do too.”
5 Business Insider, “I Asked 5 Financial Experts What to Do with My Money While the Market Is Dropping, and I Ultimately Decided to Invest a Chunk of My Savings”
6 Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, “FDIC: Insured Bank Deposits are Safe; Beware of Potential Scams Using the Agency’s Name”