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Relief Checks May Be Coming, but Scammers Are Already Here

March 19, 2020
Personal Finance
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Congress is working out the details of help for most Americans in the form of payments likely to come within the next few weeks.

But the Federal Trade Commission is concerned you’ll hear from a scammer before you get a check.

Scammers, too, are working from home during the coronavirus crisis, it seems, “and they will take any opportunity to take advantage of people — even a pandemic,” says Adam Garber, director of the consumer watchdog program at U.S. Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy organization.

The warnings

The FTC wants you to know three things:

  • No one from the government will call or email and ask for your Social Security number, bank account number or credit card number. They don’t need to confirm your birthdate. Anyone telling you they are required to collect such information so that you can get your check is a scammer.
  • There will be no fee for getting a relief check.
  • The specifics about the checks are still being worked out.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which insures most U.S. bank deposits (up to $250,000), sent out a similar warning, noting that it won’t contact customers asking for account numbers and other personal data.

It’s important to keep sensitive personal and financial data private to prevent identity theft.

How to protect yourself

Be skeptical about both phone calls and emails. Phone numbers can be spoofed so that it looks as if a government agency is calling you. Government email addresses end in “.gov” but some scams embed that into an email address by ending with “-gov.com” or something similar. With an official-looking email with government logos, it’s easy to be misled.

Rather than answering a call or interacting with an email, contact the agency directly. Go to the official website, checking for the .gov address, for information and contact details. Never click on attachments or links in emails. Those are just two ways to keep yourself safer online.

Follow reputable news outlets and watch official government websites to know when relief is approved and to find out what you should expect — and when.

NerdWallet Guide to COVID-19

Get answers about stimulus checks, debt relief, changing travel policies and managing your finances.

Beware of other coronavirus scams

Garber says that once relief details are announced, he wouldn’t be surprised if predatory lenders make offers to provide money immediately in exchange for large fees. He said he would like to see caps on interest rates of any such “advance” loans.

That’s in addition to existing dangers. Scammers already have tried to mimic genuine communications sent out by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. Some of those asked for donations. The people who responded either got their money stolen directly or had malware installed that tracked keystrokes, Garber said.

The FTC also has sent warning letters to companies making false claims about products that allegedly help prevent or cure coronavirus.

Helping others

What makes us so vulnerable, Garber says, is that Americans are both in dire need and feeling fearful. Both of those interfere with our ability to think clearly. Beware of forwarding scam emails or sharing misinformation on social media.

Instead, take proactive measures to help everyone: If you suspect a scam, report it to the FTC. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a trusted government site with valuable resources and advice on coronavirus.

Reach out to older friends and family members. Social distancing may have intensified the isolation many older adults already feel, and that age group often is a target of scammers. Calls, video chats or other communication can keep them informed and make them less likely to talk with a scammer to relieve loneliness.

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