Scammers are a virus, too. Here’s how to protect yourself.

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Nothing makes a tragedy even worse quite like scammers who prey upon your fear and compassion. COVID-19 might be an unprecedented pandemic, but thankfully, the scams are predictable and easy to spot – if you know what to look for.

Charity scams

How they work: Every natural disaster is followed by pleas for donations from legitimate charities – and scammers posing as charities. How can you tell the difference? First, scammers usually ask for donations through gift cards, cash, or wiring money – which no legit charity does. (You donate through a safe portal either on their site or elsewhere.)

Latest example: The World Health Organization (WHO) “urges people to be wary of phone calls and text messages that purport to be from the WHO” asking for account information or for money. WHO only accepts donations through its own online portal.

What to do: If you want to donate, research the name of the charity at one of these amazing websites…

If you’re looking for reputable charities to donate to, Charity Navigator is keeping a list.

Testing scams

Controversy rages about whether there will be enough tests to go around and why celebrities, athletes, and politicians are getting access while regular Americans can’t. That’s primetime for scammers, who are blasting out emails and phone calls advertising “cheap accurate test kits for only $79!” Of course, they have no test kits. But now they have your money, or even just your personal information to sell.

Latest example: The FCC reports this is a popular phone scam script: “The Coronavirus Response Act has made coronavirus testing more accessible immediately. If you want to receive a free testing kit delivered overnight to your home, press 1. If you do not want your free testing, press 2.”

What to do: Well, it’s really what not to do. Obviously, don’t respond. But don’t even “press 2” to refuse a test or even be removed from the call list – because now scammers know they have a live person at the other end. The calls will actually increase.

Government check scams

The White House and Congress may have just agreed on “stimulus checks” of up to $2,400 per married couple. But that hasn’t stopped scammers from pretending to be government officials and trying to steal your personal information for weeks now.

As the Federal Trade Commission said just this week: “There have been news reports about possible government-issued checks being sent to consumers. If that happens, no one will call or text you to verify your personal information or bank account details in order to ‘release’ the funds.”

Latest example: A robocall urges you to dial extension 003 to speak with “James Anderson,” who says you’ve qualified for a “$9,000 federal grant. Just go to Walmart and wire a $200 “processing fee” through Western Union – and you’ll be reimbursed the $200 when the check arrives.

What to do: As usual, do nothing. You can report the scam to the government, and while that often doesn’t accomplish anything right away, we’re guessing government investigators will prioritize scams about themselves. So it might be worth a few minutes.

Cleaning scams

Local stores out of ammonia, vinegar, bleach, and brand-name cleaners? Worried about COVID-19 in your air ducts? What about laundry detergent that kills the virus in your washing machine? (Tip: They all do.)

Latest example: “Protect your loved ones from the coronavirus. For only $79 our highly trained technicians will do a full air duct cleaning and sanitation to make sure that the air you breathe is free of bacteria. So don’t hesitate, press 0 and have your duct system cleaned and sanitized now. Press 9 to be removed from this list.”

What to do: Nothing. And don’t press 9. If you want your HVAC cleaned, search online reviews for local providers and do business with them. You’ll get good service and help out your local economy.

Bank scams

As COVID-19 continues to put people out of work and shake the stock market, banks are making changes, whether it be restricting their office hours or offering financial assistance. Unfortunately, scammers know this – and they’re stepping into the shoes of banks to swipe your information.

Latest example: Mid Penn Bank is warning customers of text messages and calls from scammers who claim to be from the bank. The messages vary, but it goes something like this: “Due to the COVID-19 virus, all operations are stopped. We require your debit card number and PIN to ensure no interruption to everyday use of your card.”

What to do: Like other scams, it’s best to just ignore it. Banks will never ask you for personal information over email or text message, and won’t initiate a call to ask for PIN numbers or credit card numbers, either.

Numerous other scams

Any scam you’ve ever heard of is being repositioned for coronavirus. Televangelist Jim Bakker has made national headlines for selling a miracle cure, and now he’s being sued over it. But he’s sold miracle cures in the past. And those Nigerian prince emails? Now you see them with a COVID-19 spin.

If new scams arise, check back here, or email us what you’ve heard, and we’ll investigate and post it here.

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About the Author

Hope Dean

Hope Dean

Hope Dean is a senior studying journalism at the University of Florida. She works as the enterprise editor at the Independent Florida Alligator and previously worked at the Florida Atlantic University student-run newspaper the University Press as the news, features and managing editor.

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