By Jill Webster

The COVID-19 outbreak has caused the older population to be vulnerable and at risk not only to attacks from the virus, but also to attacks from scammers looking to take advantage or this crisis. Seniors are prone to feeling isolated and lonely due to stay-at-home orders. They may be forced to do some tasks differently during the pandemic. A trusted family member or friend may have helped them with shopping, reviewing mail, paying bills, and completing errands. These tasks might have to be done by themselves or someone they do not know due to certain restrictions and mandates. Scammers are preying on this population with a variety of fraudulent activity.

This ongoing, weekly-updated blog provides tips to keep seniors safe from scammers and ongoing, current issues involving seniors and COVID scams.  

Tips for Keeping Seniors Safe from Scammers

  • Stay informed about current scams to share with the seniors in your life with these regularly updated resources:
  • Keep in close contact with the older people in your life to prevent them from feeling lonely. Visit regularly, if possible. Stay connected over the telephone or video chats when visiting in person is not possible.
  • Remind seniors not to respond to messages or calls from unfamiliar senders/callers.
  • Remind the senior in your life they should discuss with someone they trust making any online purchases related to virus or sharing financial information.
  • Be aware of any links in texts or emails that appear to be questionable.
  • Pay attention to any potential schemes they may have fallen prey to. They may be excited to share a service they were alerted to that sends them home test kits for coronavirus or a new product they purchased that guards against COVID-19.
  • If there is an organization you want to donate money to, research the website and call a verified phone number to ensure it is a legitimate organization.
  • Online fraud is increasing across all age groups. If your senior is online, share with them how it is risky to create connections through social media and online with people they do not have relationships with offline. Remind them that it is quite common for schemers to create fake profiles and pretend to be another person or act on behalf of a well-known, trustworthy company.
  • If they become the victim of fraud, be supportive. Do not victimize them again by making them feel foolish and ashamed. Do not blame them. Being reassuring and sensitive will make seniors feel more comfortable reporting the situation to authorities. 

The Week of June 15, 2020

The Federal Trade Commission

The Federal Trade Commission reports the following COVID-19 and Stimulus Reports, as of June 17, 2020:

  • 52,864 Total Fraud Reports
  • $67.38M Total Fraud Loss
  • $290 Median Fraud Loss

Crooks Extort Grandparents for Cash Amid Pandemic

Older adults have been the target of the grandparent scam for some time. Recently fraudsters have adjusted their tactics to capitalize on the pandemic and the number of these cases is soaring. Approximately 100 victims have lost roughly $1 million in recent months in New York and New Jersey alone. The predators call the victim and claim that a relative urgently needs money for an emergency, usually for bail or a hospital bill. They pose as an attorney or bail bondsman, stating that the victim’s grandchild, niece, nephew, or other close relative is in distress. Recently scammers are telling victims that the “relative” may have COVID-19, as an additional reason why the money is desperately needed, to instill increased fear and panic. The stories are usually dramatic and the pleas exploit their emotions. The scammers do their homework and comb through Facebook and other online sources to determine family relationships before they make the call. When they call, they know the names of family members, which adds credibility to their bogus scenario. The FBI is investigating, arresting, and charging these crooks throughout the U.S., Canada, the Dominican Republic, and beyond. A 41-year-old New Yorker was among those recently arrested after scamming multiple victims throughout New Jersey. One victim was told that her grandson was in jail after being in a car accident. To add to her distress, she was told that he may have COVID-19 and “may not receive proper care if he were in jail for several days”. She withdrew $27,000 from her bank and the con man picked it up from her house, acting as a courier. There are many other stories of concerned seniors trying to do the right thing and assist a family member in need, only to be exploited by these scoundrels. There have been cases where their entire life savings have been wiped out by scams like these. If you receive a call from one of these scammers, report it to your local police, the FBI’s Internet Complaint Center, and the Federal Trade Commission.

Here are some tips from the FBI and other authorities to protect yourself or loved ones from being a victim of a grandparent’s scam.

  • Ensure that privacy settings on all social media accounts are set to the maximum privacy settings, so these rip-off artists can’t access details about you or your family.
  • If you receive a suspicious call, text, or email, do not respond immediately to the person contacting you. Get in touch with the relative that is allegedly having the crisis and in need of money. If that relative can’t be reached, contact another close relative that would be able to confirm or deny the story. Resist any pressure from the caller to act instantly. The caller will likely be persuasive and push you to act quickly. If it turns out to be a true emergency, taking a few minutes to make a call will not make a big difference.
  • If the caller claims to be a bail bondsman, ask where your relative is being detained. Then contact that facility directly or your local police department to determine if the story is legitimate.
  • Ask the caller questions that only your real relative would know the answers to. It may be helpful to create a family password proactively.
  • If you believe that the caller is a scammer, tell them, “I am not participating in this discussion.” You may want to write it down and have it near your phone. You may not remember what to say when you get a call. You will likely be stressed and overwhelmed. Many of these calls come in the middle of the night, with the intent of attacking you while you’re not fully cognizant.
  • Do not send cash, money transfers, or gift cards. Once the predator receives them, they are gone.

If you’ve been a victim of this type of scam, you can receive support from AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline: 877-908-3360.

Avoid scams while finding help during quarantine

Scammers are taking advantage of older adults who need to stay at home due to the virus. Crooks are offering to assist with securing essential items then taking your money and never delivering. To reduce exposure to the virus many older people need help with basic errands like getting medication, groceries, and/or other supplies and services they may need. The best way to protect yourself from being taken advantage of is to have a reliable relative, friend, or neighbor assist with obtaining the items you need from stores. When this is not an option and you are ordering online, shop directly from a store you trust that offers delivery services, when possible. Otherwise use a reputable delivery service. There have been hundreds of websites shut down by the Justice Department for illegal activity related to the pandemic. If you need assistance securing services, the Eldercare Locator (1-800-677-1116) offers support in obtaining services for seniors. If you are assisting someone elderly with obtaining their basic needs, you may also be helping them manage their money. If you are not able to physically be with that person right now due to stay-at-home and social distancing orders, there are ways to provide support from afar. Here are some suggestions:

  • Ask questions and listen for cues that could indicate a potential problem. If they share information about any unusual financial activity or general concerns about money, ask for more information. Be sure to inquire in a loving, concerned manner without judgment or interrogating them.
  • Keep in touch over the phone or video chat. Maintain regular contact to assess how they are managing and to reassure them how much you care about them. Seniors and those who care about them can learn more about common scams and how to protect themselves by reviewing Money Smart for Older Adults and Pass It On, which are valuable resources.
  • If you are financially responsible for someone, you can better understand your role and responsibilities through the guides provided by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

If you think you are a victim of a fraud or attempted fraud involving COVID-19, call the National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721 or email at disaster@leo.gov. If it is a cyber scam, file a complaint through the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

The Week of June 8, 2020

The Federal Trade Commission

The Federal Trade Commission reports the following COVID-19 and Stimulus Reports, as of June 8, 2020:

  • 47,881 Total Fraud Reports
  • $59.27M Total Fraud Loss
  • $300 Median Fraud Loss

 COVID-19 Fraud: Law Enforcement’s Response to Those Exploiting the Pandemic

In a Statement Before the Senate Judiciary Committee, on June 9th, the FBI addressed the variety of fraudulent schemes that have exploited the pandemic. These threats are dangerous to the United States because they attack our financial institutions and prey on our most vulnerable populations – older individuals and those with underlying medical conditions. As of March 30, 2020, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) received over 1,200 complaints related to COVID-19 scams. See this week’s blog for Employees. As of May 28, 2020, the IC3 has received 320,000 complaints in 2020, which is almost as many as they received in all of 2019 (approximately 400,000). Approximately 75% of those complaints are for fraud or swindles.

  • Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) – Business owners have made many complaints to the FBI because they are unable to apply for a PPP loan since their Employer Identification Numbers had already been used on phony applications. There have been fake websites created supposedly to assist with processing PPP loans. These sites collect personal information, do not help with applying for loans, and likely use the information for illicit activity.
  • Advance Fee and Business Email Compromise Schemes – Advance fee scams in this pandemic era are related to high demand supplies such as hand sanitizer, toilet paper, masks, and ventilators. The victim pays the seller in advance and receives little or nothing in return. Business email schemes (BEC) typically use an email that is almost exactly the same as someone the victim trusts or spoof a valid email that the recipient recognizes. A recent BEC scheme that was reported to the FBI involved a financial institution that received an email claiming to be from the CEO. The CEO had a $1 million transfer scheduled. The email appeared to come from the CEO and asked for the date of the transfer to be expedited and the account where the funds were being transferred was changed, “due to the Coronavirus outbreak and quarantine processes and precautions.” The scammers used an email address that was nearly identical to the CEO’s; it was only off by one letter.
  • Money Mules – Scammers who receive money by illicit means need opportunities to create legal traces for their money. They utilize money mules to facilitate this process. They will offer mules a fee exchange for accepting payment into their bank account and then transferring the money to the fraudsters through a wire transfer or Western Union or Money Gram. This activity compromises the financial and personal information of the mule and it is a crime.
  • Virtual Assets – With the increase in the availability, convenience, and use of virtual assets, there has also been a jump in fraud utilizing virtual assets. Scammers are preying on older adults’ fear and uncertainty regarding COVID-19 and are stealing money and laundering it through the potentially anonymous virtual asset system. It is difficult to trace these virtual transactions to real person, which makes them so appealing to scammers.
  • Health Care Fraud Schemes – Fraudsters are capitalizing on the current state of fear, urgency and uncertainty to take advantage of Americans. The older and at-risk populations are most vulnerable. Scammers are selling fake test kits and treatments that have not been approved through social media, telemarketing call and even going door-to-door. There have been reports of some who are going door-to-door conducting fake tests for cash. Many victims are promised free care or free test kits in exchange for their personal and health information, including date of birth, Social Security, and financial data. Health care investigations in the past indicate that once fraudsters secure someone’s personal information, they can use it to bill insurance plans for procedures that were not performed and they retain the profit.

Avoiding SSA scams during COVID-19

Some scammers pretending that they are from the Social Security Administration. They are trying to get your Social Security number or your money. Here are some tips to protect you from being a victim to this scam:

  • Do not be fooled by caller ID. Calls may display the Social Security Administration on your caller ID and it may appear to be a legitimate call. If the real Social Security Administration ever had to call you, they will not threaten you or ask for money.
  • Do not be afraid of your Social Security number being suspended. Do not worry about your bank accounts being suspended. This is all fake!
  • Do not confirm your Social Security number or any other personal information with anyone who calls you unsolicited. If you already have provided your Social Security number or other personal information to someone you don’t know, go here information on how to protect your credit and identity.
  • The Social Security Administration will never tell you that your benefits are in jeopardy if you do not send cash, put money or gift cards or wire money. This is a scam.
  • Discuss these calls with friends and family to prevent each other from being the victim of a scam.
  • Individuals who are aware of scams are less likely to be a victim of them. So continue talking about them to protect yourself and those you love.

The Week of June 1, 2020

Beware of Scams Related to the Coronavirus

Con artists are taking advantage of the pandemic and the fact that the elderly have less connections with trusted contacts. The coronavirus has created a new reason for fraudsters to cheat people out of their money; however, many of the techniques they are using are have been around long before the pandemic.

  • Scams related to COVID-19 testing, cure, vaccine, or air filters
  • Bogus charity scams related to coronavirus
  • “Person in need” scam, i.e., posing as a grandchild who is ill with the virus or stranded to get money
  • Scams soliciting Social Security benefits

Do not give anyone your Social Security number, credit card information, driver’s license number, bank account number, Medicare ID number, or any other personally identifiable information over the phone, by email, text, or in person. Do not send money to anyone you do not know through payment apps such as Venmo or Zelle. If someone you do not know sends you an unexpected check, perhaps for selling an item or winning a prize and requests that you send a portion of the money back, do not send any money.

Coronavirus Scam Alert: 7 Tips for How Seniors Can Avoid Them

 Scammers are preying on seniors who are more isolated and fearful during the pandemic. Here is a list of popular coronavirus scams:

  • Fake home test kits for coronavirus
  • Websites, apps, emails, or texts that promise to track the spread of the virus but instead download ransomware
  • Bogus teas, lotions, supplements, etc. that claim to treat or cure coronavirus
  • Counterfeit hand sanitizer and face masks
  • Get a free iPhone by clicking a link in a text and it loads malware
  • Claims to sell a product that has been hard to find, such as hand sanitizer, takes your money and never delivers
  • CBD-based treatments and cures
  • Robocalls linked to several scams
  • Faith-based or religious miracle cures
  • Fraudulent charities
  • Phony work-from-home scams
  • Fake payday loans

There are many ways to help seniors fight against these fraudulent activities.

  • Be aware of current scams.
  • Stay involved in the lives of the seniors in your life. The best way to prevent an older person from being the victim of a scam is by being actively involved in their life. Visit regularly, if possible. If not, connect frequently by talking on the phone or video chatting, when available.
  • Pay attention while interacting with the seniors in your life – listen for cues for any new products or services that they may be using.
  • Let seniors know that it is wise to consult someone they trust before making any of these purchases or ever sharing financial or personal information.
  • Inform seniors about online and social media fraud.
  • Show compassion if they are a victim of a scam.

Coronavirus Scams Spread as Fraudsters Follow the Headlines

As of May 25, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had fielded 30,700 fraud complaints regarding the pandemic. Victims have reported losses totaling $40.1 million, with a median loss of $463. Scammers are using any tool available to swindle the unsuspecting—robocalls, phishing emails and texts, impostor schemes, and more. They are tracking the virus and changing their tactics and messages as new information becomes available.

Hard to find products and fake cures

There have been over warning 40 letters sent out by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to companies selling products they are claiming can cure or prevent COVID-19. A website that was promoting a vaccine that does not exist was also shut down. A wide variety of alleged treatments are being promoted in clinics, on television shows, social media, and websites as protection against the virus. Other fraudsters are using social media ads, texts or robocalls claiming to sell hard to find products like household cleaners, test kits and surgical masks. Visit the FTC website for information on COVID-19 phone scams.

Financial fraud

The Internal Revenue Service has issued an alert regarding scams to get your payment faster. Beware of emails or calls from supposed government agencies using the term “stimulus” (the official term is “economic-impact payment.) Do not share any personal information, such as your Social Security number or agree to sign over your check. There are also stock scams related to investing in virus detection, protection, or cure. Additional scams directed at small businesses have been reported. Scammers are offering fast cash or help with Google results. Fraudsters pose as banking institutions and offer assistance with expenses, debt from credit card or student loan forgiveness.

Phishing scams

Hundreds of fake websites promising vaccines and other assistance, often claiming to represent government agencies or humanitarian organizations, have been shut down by the Justice Department. Many of the domain names contain “covid-19 or “coronavirus.” When you contact the phony domains, you can start receiving phishing emails from scammers attempting to plant malware on your computer or to get your personal information. Google reported in April that it was blocking 18 million of these messages a day on its Gmail platform.

There are reports of phishing texts to the FTC. The text comes from someone claiming to be a contact tracer and warns you that you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19. There is a link included in the message that downloads malware to your device if clicked. Legitimate contact tracers working for public health organizations will not include a link in messages or request any type of payment or personal information.

FBI Official Warns of More Coronavirus Scams as Outbreak Persists

FBI officials warn that Coronavirus scams are likely to continue and become more sophisticated. As of April 21, more than 3,600 complaints had been made to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center about COVID-19 scams. The most popular scams include phony charities, work-from-home scams, advance-fee scams, and phishing scams. Some scams that are anticipated because of the pandemic are investments in gold and silver, Ponzi schemes, and frauds involving supposed “safe havens.”

6 Coronavirus Scams and Hoaxes Targeting the Elderly

Family and caregivers of the elderly need to be aware of predators looking to take advantage of the vulnerable, older population. Several scams related to COVID-19 directed at the senior age group have surfaced. Frightened by the pandemic and feeling lonely from social distancing makes them prime targets susceptible to fraud.

Here are some of the current scams related to coronavirus targeting seniors:

  1. Stimulus payment scams: There are several hoaxes related to the government payment in response to COVID-19. Scammers are requesting bank account information and fraudulently promising quicker access to these funds.
  2. Bogus Social Security calls: Someone states they are calling from the Social Security Administration and threaten that benefits will be lowered or delayed if they do not provide payment or personal information.
  3. COVID-19 home test kits: These scams involve calls or text messages sent to seniors offering “coronavirus test kits.” In reality, the scammer is looking for banking or credit card information. Some messages also ask to verify a Social Security number and Medicare ID. Victims may also be asked for their address, so the test kit can be “dropped off.”
  4. Charity scams: Many unsuspecting older adults may think they are donating to COVID-19 relief charities, when in reality they have been conned out of money for a fake charity. Forbes published a list of credible charities seeking donations to help those most impacted by COVID-19.
  5. Insurance scams: There are currently several low-cost life and health insurance scams, usually including a free gift of an at-home COVID-19 test kit.
  6. Fraudulent services and products related to COVID-19: There are many current scams offering testing, vaccines, and cures for COVID-19. There is also price gauging of items that have been in short supply.

Jill Webster first joined Hetherington Group in 2009, then returned in 2018. She has a keen eye for detail, inherent curiosity, and natural persistence that are beneficial when conducting investigations and researching for writing. She works on special projects and is responsible for in-house proofreading of client reports. She creates content for Hg’s blog regarding predators taking advantage of the most vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ms. Webster develops material and creates webinars for online safety for children.