Scams Spread Along With COVID-19; New Task Force Announced

From the very beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, unscrupulous scam artists began to conceive their plans to profit from the public’s fears and capitalize on the confusion created by the pandemic.

On Thursday, May 7, Connecticut’s Attorney General William Tong announced the formation of a joint state and federal COVID-19 Task Force to combat scams related to the pandemic. In the announcement, Tong said, “To those who seek to use this crisis as an opportunity to cheat, scam and defraud—stop. The Office of the Attorney General is working hand in hand with our state and federal enforcement partners to aggressively investigate and prosecute COVID-19 related misconduct. Our office has received over a thousand complaints regarding price gouging, scams and other schemes and our attorneys and investigators are following up on each and every one. If you are aware of COVID-19 related fraud and abuse, we want to know about it.”

In the same statement, task force member and FBI Special Agent in Charge David Sundberg said, “We at the FBI are fully committed to this multi-agency Task Force and pledge our resources to combatting those attempting to take advantage of Connecticut residents during this vulnerable time.”

Think you would never fall for a COVID-19 scam? Authorities say even the most educated and intelligent consumers are being victimized by these scams, which can appear to be from legitimate, familiar sources. And while the elderly are often the victims, COVID-19 scammers have successfully targeted white-collar workers, affluent charity donors, business owners, and college students/grads.

Lt. Robert Kluk of the Wilton Police Department says that, so far, no Wilton residents have reported falling for any COVID-19 scams, but warns, “they’re definitely out there.”

GOOD Morning Wilton explains the most common scams of the coronavirus era, and provides a list of resources with more information about these scams and what to do if you encounter one.

Fake COVID-19 Treatments and Tests

In addition to selling bogus or unproven products that claim to prevent or treat the virus, scammers are selling fake test kits and fraudulently scheduling drive-up tests.

In reality, testing for COVID-19 is only being conducted at specific locations; there are currently no at-home tests available in the consumer marketplace. Although last Thursday’s executive order by Gov. Ned Lamont now allows pharmacies to order and administer COVID-19 tests without a doctor’s order, it’s still a good idea to contact your doctor if you think you need a test; many test locations still require a doctor’s order, and besides that, your doctor may wish to test you for other illnesses, like influenza.

Be aware, not all scams steal your money; some steal your identity. One scam offered free coronavirus test kits to consumers who sign up, providing their personal and health insurance information. Scammers not only use your identity to open credit cards, but they often use your information to bill for fraudulent medical claims. Always check any statement of benefits from your insurance company for tests or services you did not receive.

Another particularly ruthless scam targeted people with diabetes, exploiting their deep anxieties about the high risk for complications from COVID-19. They were tricked into revealing their personal information with an offer of free coronavirus testing along with a free diabetes monitoring device, something that is unaffordable for many diabetes patients.  Again, only get testing information and medical advice from your doctor, not from unsolicited or unfamiliar sources.

Phony College Fees and Student Loan Programs

Back in March, college students made hasty departures from campus. There was a frantic scramble to arrange move-out and travel logistics; in some cases belongings even had to be left behind. In the weeks that followed, many students were targeted with scams that played upon that chaos.

Students and parents should be suspicious of “phishing” emails or phone calls about new charges (such as room damage or cleaning fees) or asking for bank account information to refund tuition or room and board charges.

Other scams inform students they need to pay a fee in order to receive or restore credits they earned. For any billing matters, students and parents should inquire directly with their school bursar’s office or their usual student billing processing service.

When emails are delivered to student inboxes and appear just like other communications from their school, students can understandably be fooled. Lt. Kluk noted that while most people have learned to recognize phishing emails (or text messages), students may be more naive and inexperienced. “Most people know by now not to click on links or attachments in those emails, but college kids haven’t been around as long. Anyone can fall into [a phishing scam] but the elderly and students are probably most vulnerable to it,” he said.

Other scams are heartlessly preying upon those with student loans. One scam falsely claimed there was a student loan program created in the federal government’s COVID-19 economic relief package that would reduce/eliminate student loan debt. When students call to “enroll” they are asked to provide personal information, like Social Security numbers, becoming victims of identity theft.

Pyramid Schemes

Pyramid schemes are a tried-and-true method for scammers, but one in particular is circulating in this pandemic. “The Blessing Loom” scheme is spreading rapidly on social media, promising to pay out hundreds of dollars in just a few days.  Victims send $100 to a PayPal or Venmo account with the theory that as more participants join in, they will receive a large payout.

In a statement about this scheme, AG Tong warned, “The Blessing Loom is a new name for an old scam. Upfront payments and recruitment requirements are hallmark signs of a pyramid scheme. Don’t believe the pitch. Nearly every participant ends up losing their money. Scammers are seeking to capitalize on unprecedented unemployment and anxiety caused by COVID-19.”

Employment Scams

As Tong mentioned, “unprecedented unemployment” is providing fertile ground for scams. The Better Business Bureau considers employment scams among the most concerning because they can appear so authentic (for example, using well-known company names) and may even be posted on legitimate job sites. They promise good pay, flexible hours and other appealing benefits.

One phony job posting promised $400/day for the “Amazon associate program” open to anyone over 18, with no sales or technical experience needed, and provided an Amazon hotline to call.

Experts point out two tell-tale signs of employment scams:  one, some training (or other investment) the employee needs to do at their own cost, and two, being asked for their personal or bank account information to run a background check or set up direct deposit.

A Word of Caution About MLM’s

Illegal pyramid schemes and employment scams such as those described above should be distinguished from legitimate MLM (multi-level marketing) businesses. In a typical MLM, individuals are recruited to sell a company’s products directly, usually out of their homes; several Wilton residents are involved in these legitimate businesses.

However, in a recent statement, the Federal Trade Commission expressed concern about some MLMs’ tactics during the coronavirus pandemic and issued warnings to several well-known companies. Those tactics included pressuring people to use their stimulus checks to pay for startup costs, making misleading claims about their products or sellers’ income potential, and other questionable practices.

Eager job-seekers may be easily lured by the dream of being their own boss and achieving financial success, but often overlook the costs to buy in, pay for inventory, acquire marketing materials or meet future requirements. Before joining an MLM, be sure you fully understand the details, speak with current sellers in your area, and research previous complaints against the company.

Fake Charities/Fundraising

At a time when people want to help others and fight COVID-19, scammers have realized they can tap into that generosity. They have created websites, email campaigns, and social media posts designed to look like the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or other respected organizations, attempting to raise money for research, developing vaccines, or other noble causes.

In a statement about COVID-19 charity scams, AG Tong observed, “Bad actors are always looking for new ways to take advantage of people’s generosity, especially during emergencies like the COVID-19 outbreak. Before making a charitable donation, make sure you know who you are talking to.”

Tong urged donors to verify a charity’s registration with the State of Connecticut as well as to research how they use donations before making any.  He made a pointed comment about fundraising campaigns seen on social media: “Don’t assume that charity recommendations on Facebook or social media are legitimate and have already been scrutinized.”

Lt. Kluk echoed those points.  “If you’re looking to donate to something, do your research,” he said. “Don’t rely on an email you get or something you see on social media.”

“Never [donate with] gift cards,” he continued. “No legitimate charity asks for gift cards from Best Buy or Walmart. And [charities that ask for] money transfers are always a scam.”

WFH Targets

WFH (work from home) may have replaced DIY as the trendiest home-related acronym, and it’s also creating new opportunities for scammers. Home office setups often don’t have the same internet security or protocols as corporate offices, so workers are simply more vulnerable to cyber threats.

Scammers are targeting the legions of new WFH employees with phishing emails or text messages that appear to come from a known contact within their company. But by responding to the message or opening an attachment, they inadvertently install spyware/malware or ransomware onto their computer.

Other scammers pretend to be from the company’s IT department in order to gain access to a victim’s computer.

Employees working from home should never allow an unknown person remote access to their computer, and always view emails suspiciously, especially if they are short, vague or non-personalized, with messages like “Hi, thought you should see this” or “Please review the attached ASAP.”

Stimulus Scams

Very soon after the federal government passed the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) authorizing stimulus payments (Economic Impact Payments) to citizens, the Connecticut Attorney General and Department of Consumer Protection started to receive reports of scams, namely stolen personal information and stimulus checks, and fraudulent loan programs for small businesses.

The relief packages are complicated. The fact that many people don’t fully understand the process or their eligibility opens the door for scammers to take advantage of them. In most cases, scammers impersonate a government authority, offering to help you apply for a stimulus payment, or check the status of an application, or to expedite your funds. These scams typically involve either paying a fee or revealing your Social Security number or bank account number to the scammer.

In a recent statement on the stimulus scams, AG Tong said, “Now that the federal government has passed an economic stimulus package to bring relief to individuals and businesses, it’s important that we remain vigilant… Scam artists will use this public health emergency and much-needed relief as a way to profit off of the public’s fears and vulnerabilities. If you receive a text message, email, or phone call from someone claiming to be from the federal government, do not fall for it. Do your research before you click on a link or share information,” said AG Tong.

As Tong notes, these scams target both individuals and small business owners, who are trying to navigate the complex process of applying for small business loans. These business owners may be duped by scammers into thinking they are dealing with an actual government agency, and reveal their tax identification or banking information.

Consumers should know that government agencies like the IRS will not contact them by phone or email with these types of offers. They should also not follow links they see online or in social media that may lead to scammers’ websites, made to closely resemble actual government agencies (a close examination of the URL is often needed to discern them).  Instead, they should visit the agencies’ official websites for the information they need.

So… is There Any GOOD News?

It can be disheartening to learn that these ruthless scams are so prevalent during this pandemic when people are already anxious about their health, their families, the economy, and other concerns. At the same time, examples of kindness, selflessness and generosity abound in Wilton. Residents should not be discouraged by the news about scams, but be bolstered by the knowledge of what to look out for.

GOOD Morning Wilton has assembled a quick reference list of resources where you can find legitimate information on COVID-19 topics, insights on how to spot a scam, and guidance for what to do if you think you’ve been targeted by a scam.

COVID-19 And Testing

https://portal.ct.gov/Coronavirus for all information from the State of Connecticut related to the COVID-19 pandemic

https://portal.ct.gov/Coronavirus/Health/COVID-19-Testing for all the details on how and where to get a test

Understanding Scams And How To Spot Them

https://portal.ct.gov/DCP/Common-Elements/Common-Elements/Fraud-and-Scams for extensive information on popular scams and identity theft from the Department of Consumer protection

https://www.fcc.gov/covid-scams for details on phone scams being tracked by the FCC

https://www.ftc.gov/coronavirus/scams-consumer-advice for advice on avoiding COVID-19 scams

https://www.ct.gov/smartconsumer/cwp/view.asp?a=4401&Q=590966 for more general advice on charity scams, MLM scams, and other common scams

https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0065-multi-level-marketing-businesses-and-pyramid-schemes for information on differentiating MLM’s and illegal pyramid schemes

https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/AG/Press_Releases/2019/COVID-cyber-final.pdf?la=en for tips on preventing cyber-scams during COVID-19

Reporting Scams

https://www.wiltonct.org/police-department to report a scam to the Wilton Police Department (recommended first step)

http://www.ftc.gov/complaint to report a scam to the FTC

https://www.dir.ct.gov/ag/complaint to file a complaint to the CT Attorney General

https://ct.gov/dcp/complaint to file a complaint to the CT Dept. of Consumer Protection

Researching Charities

https://www.elicense.ct.gov to verify a charity’s authenticity as registered with the State of Connecticut

https://www.give.org or https://www.charitynavigator.org for information on charity accreditation and ratings

https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/AG/Press_Releases/2019/Charitable-tips-(2).pdf?la=en for tips on charitable giving during COVID-19

More For Seniors

https://www.aarp.org/money/scams-fraud/helpline/ for help for AARP members

https://www.aarp.org/money/scams-fraud/?intcmp=AE-SCM-FRD-CTA for how to spot and avoid scams

Tax relief and stimulus payments

https://www.irs.gov/coronavirus-tax-relief-and-economic-impact-payments for everything you need to know about the federal government’s tax relief plan and stimulus payments (Economic Impact Payments)

https://www.irs.gov/coronavirus/get-my-payment-frequently-asked-questions for frequently asked questions

https://www.irs.gov/coronavirus/get-my-payment to check your payment status