Knowledge is the best weapon against COVID-19 scams

Published 6:00 pm Friday, April 17, 2020

To add a humorous twist in these difficult times to an otherwise serious message, the FTC has created a coronavirus Scam Bingo card. You’re encouraged to download it from the FTC’s website and check off the coronavirus scams you spot. You can share it on social media (#FTCScamBingo).
The 25 squares on the bingo card include such scams as “COVID-19 cure,” “Problem with SSN,” “COVID-19 phishing scam,” and “Pressure to act NOW.” It also includes actions you took to stop them, including “Hung up on robocall” and “Reported a scam.” There are two boxes to fill in a scam not otherwise listed in recognition that they’re still coming.
COVID-19 scams are no joke.
Mortgage and student debt relief scams have been around for years, but the coronavirus crisis presents new opportunities for crooks to victimize people who have lost their jobs and are struggling to pay their bills.
The stimulus bill provides automatic suspension of principal and interest payments on federal student loans through Sept 30. Many people with federally-backed mortgage loans are also eligible for relief for up to a year, but it’s not automatic; you have to call your mortgage loan servicer.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and BBB warn you won’t be asked to pay a fee to take advantage of these loan relief programs. And don’t provide any sensitive information in response to an unsolicited phone call, email, text or social media message offering assistance. If you have questions, contact your loan servicer on a phone number or through an online means you know is legitimate.
The FTC and FDA have sent warning letters to at least nine companies peddling bogus products they claimed could treat or cure coronavirus. They’re also landing on companies that enable scammers.
The FTC just sent warning letters to nine Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers and other companies it perceives are facilitating coronavirus scam robocalls.
BBBs have received reports from consumers about phony pop-up testing sites, scammers going door-to-door offering to take tests, and bogus messages from government agencies about a “mandatory online COVID-19 test.” Law enforcement agencies have even warned about phony messages from the Census Bureau saying people have to complete the census to get a stimulus check.
While people should complete the census, it’s not related to coronavirus in any way, and information provided in response to such messages will be used to commit identity theft.
Other new scams the BBB has learned about:
• The FBI issued an alert about HR or accounting departments getting phony calls from employees changing direct deposit or mailing instructions for their paychecks.
• A Florida man reported getting a $3,000 check from the “Stimulus Relief Program.” It was actually a marketing piece and said the recipient could claim his “stimulus incentive” at a “temporary relief site,” which turned out to be a used car lot.
• Fake coronavirus-related charities.
• Fake text messages about free gift cards from Starbucks and Costco that contain dangerous links.
The FTC emailed me asking the BBB do everything we can to spread the word to consumers and businesses about coronavirus scams. I responded that we’re way ahead of them through partnerships like this one with The Commercial Appeal. Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic that we’ll run out of material any time soon.
(Randy Hutchinson is president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of the Mid-South.)

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