Don’t Fall for These COVID-19 Scams
Local law enforcement has a warning: Be careful out there, folks.
The scam goes something like this: You’re unemployed and looking for some work-from-home options. You come across an ad offering telework. You send an email and set up a Google Hangout, Zoom or Skype interview—completely normal in these times.
You make it through the interview and get the job. You need to get set up to get paid, so you submit a W-9 and other required paperwork, possibly even direct deposit forms so you can get your money quickly without having to go to the bank. But then, suddenly, whatever little money you did have in your bank account is stolen, along with your identity. And the company you thought you had a job with ghosts you.
It’s just one of the many soul-crushing schemes circling the Internet cesspool right now as people seek to adjust to their COVID-19 lockdown lives. “It’s definitely organized and sophisticated,” Attorney General Maura Healey says of the wave of cyber-fraud her office is probing in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. “The ability of people who know what they’re doing and can make it seem like they’re someone they’re not is pretty remarkable and pretty believable. People are letting their guards down about some of this stuff.”
As if we all didn’t have enough troubles during the pandemic, cyber-grifters have stepped up their game and are setting up increasingly elaborate and tricky scams to dip into our online accounts, sell fake or shoddy personal protective equipment, and rip off students seeking to cut their school loan debt. There are even scam artists out there peddling fake vaccines and coronavirus treatments: In one recent case, Healey received a complaint about laminated cards being sold that claim to protect people from the disease. In another incident, the AG’s office forced a spa to stop selling vitamins online that it falsely claimed would safeguard against COVID-19. The AG has also received more than 370 price-gouging complaints. Some of these scams are based locally; many, though, come from around the world and are rooted in organized crime.
Boston United States Attorney Andrew Lelling has also been swamped with fraud complaints since the lockdowns began. Lelling’s office is chasing “pump and dump” stock scammers who artificially inflate stock prices to cash in. It’s also working with the FBI, United States Border Patrol, and other agencies to intercept huge shipments of personal protective equipment being purchased and sold over the Internet by bedroom brokers—some buying in bulk, hoarding, and price-gouging, and others selling shoddy items that comes from questionable sources. The federal government has set up the COVID-19 Hoarding and Price Gouging Task Force (yes, that’s the official name) that includes an investigator from every United States Attorney’s office in America. “These practices are not only morally repugnant in light of the pandemic but also, if left unchecked, will inhibit hospitals, physicians, other healthcare professionals, and government agencies from fully implementing measures designed to save lives and mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus,” Lelling says.
The bad news is that the rip-offs are only beginning, with state and federal authorities warning of a surge in email and text phishing—a practice by which bad actors steal victims’ personal information when they click on a link —as stimulus checks come in, as happened during the 2008 financial crisis. “We’ve seen people pretend to be from the federal government offering assistance to access those funds,” Healey says.
So how can you protect yourself? Healey recommends that people be cautious about what they open on their texts and emails; never provide financial information over the phone, email, or text; and change passwords regularly. “It’s very hard to recover the money once it’s gone,” she says. “It’s really about warning people, because it’s really hard to chase.”
Complaints can be filed with the Attorney General’s Office by calling 617-727-8400 or at mass.gov/how-to/file-a-consumer-complaint.
Complaints about cyber crimes or pandemic-related fraud can also be made to the U.S. Attorney’s Office at [email protected] or by calling 888-221-6023. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center also has a tip line at ic3.gov.