2020 has been a tumultuous year with a few bright spots. Call authentication regulations made the work of scammers more difficult. COVID-19 caused many overseas call centers to shut down, which made call spoofing harder to carry out. But the general turbulence has inspired some scammers to try new ploys and resurrect old ones. In fact, these phone scams have netted over $132,000,000 this year alone.
When the pandemic hit, robocall related phone scams initially decreased due to overseas call center closures. However, once they got back into operation, a surge of Coronavirus related scams ensued, playing on the fears and financial needs of the recipients. While these targeted different organizations, some of the scams included:
Government Relief Checks
Perhaps the most insidious scams involved government relief checks. When these stimulus payments went out, some people were desperate for money and had to wait some weeks to get their payment. Some of these checks or direct deposits were delayed because of address changes, tax filing methods, etc.
This financial anxiety made people vulnerable to phone scammers who pretended to be with the government or an organization that helped expedite payments. Some charged a “fee” for this service while others simply stole your information. If another stimulus payment is approved, be certain not to give your information to any caller. Instead, visit the IRS site.
Contact Tracing Scams
Another cynical con out there involves testing and contact tracing scams. Grifters are calling people and telling them they have been in contact with a person who is COVID-19 positive. Once they’ve delivered that news, they will ask for payment before they reveal any more information. The target is naturally alarmed and may deliver that information out of fear and anxiety.
Other similar scams are out there. Remember that contact tracers or health department employees never ask for financial information or payment of any kind when they call. They are simply trying to keep the virus from spreading by keeping you informed.
The crisis has put many households in distress, inspiring those who are financially stable to contribute to relief funds, PPE acquisition, and other needs. Unfortunately, scammers are taking advantage of people’s good intentions to take their money and sometimes their identity. Before contributing to any charity, you should research it carefully. Never contribute until you are certain the charity is legitimate.
FDIC Banking Scams
2020 also saw FDIC banking scams that used the FDIC’s name and the names of top FDIC employees to elicit financial information from targets. The callers might ask you to verify your banking information, social security number and other information that allows them access to your accounts. The caller might also say you owe a debt that must be paid immediately or you’ll face arrest or seizure of your accounts.
The FDIC is a regulatory agency and does not collect money from consumers. They advise you that they will not contact you asking for money or your financial information. They do not sell gift cards, and they will never threaten you.
Grandparent/Family Member Scams
This scam is particularly effective now because so many people are on edge and worried about their loved ones. Scammers will call a grandparent or other family member and pretend to be a grandchild or other close relative. These types of highly targetted phone scams tend to yield greater results for scammers.
The caller will be frantic, claiming they are ill and in the hospital or in jail or facing some other difficulty. They often will know personal facts about the “grandchild” that they read on social media so that their pitch is more believable. They will then ask you to wire funds to an account in order to help them out. Sometimes a second person will come on the line and pose as a doctor or police officer. Out of fear, too many people comply without verifying the story.
If you receive such a call, be suspicious if it comes in the middle of the night or the caller wants money immediately. Ask questions that only your actual relative could answer, and then call other relatives to check on the story. To further protect yourself, make certain to limit access to your social media accounts. Keep them private instead of public.
Package Tracking Scams
Online shopping has soared this year because of COVID-19 related retail shutdowns and the need to limit social contact. Scammers have jumped on this trend and used various methods to gather financial information from consumers. Some may pose as FedEx employees or employees of other shipping companies and call or text you. The ruse is that they couldn’t deliver a package and need you to share personal information so they can schedule another try. They may tell you that someone in the family is shipping you an item if you have ordered nothing yourself.
Remember that these companies rarely call you. They will give you updates, usually through email, if you have signed up for those communications. Never give your financial information to anyone over the phone unless you have initiated the contact. If you have doubts, go to the official webpage of the carrier and contact them through that portal. Do not click on links sent to you via text.
Health Insurance Scams
Open enrollment for the ACA began in November, and scammers have targeted victims seeking health insurance for 2021. Many people recently lost their coverage due to COVID-19 related job losses. While the details of the scams vary, they generally follow these patterns:
- Charging for help getting new health insurance.
- Collecting Medicare renewal fees.
- Posing as government representatives to acquire sensitive information.
- Selling medical equipment.
Sometimes these scammers will try and scare people into giving up their Medicare ID number by saying their coverage will expire if they do not.
Do not give information to people who call or text you unsolicited. If you have questions, you should visit Healthcare.gov or Medicare.gov for information. Enrollment assistance is always free, and no one outside of the system can get you a “special” deal.
IRS and Social Security Scams
These scams have been around for years, but they may be more effective now because people are looking for government assistance while facing increased financial pressure. No one from these organizations will call or text you out of the blue and demand personal financial information or threaten you with the loss of benefits or legal action. These grifters prey on your fear in order to gain access to your bank accounts, social security number, etc.
Do not give out this information over the phone unless you have initiated the contact and are sure you are dealing with the actual agency. For reliable information, visit the Social Security Administration home page and IRS.gov. Never take the word of someone who randomly contacts you.
Staying Vigilant Against Phone Scams
2020 has been a difficult year on all levels, and predatory phone scams have made it worse. These criminals thrive in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. Fortunately, you can take control by being cautious and never giving callers personal information. When in doubt, go to the source yourself by visiting the organization’s webpage or by calling them directly. If someone tries to con you, report them to your local law enforcement agency or the FTC.
Businesses and organizations must also stay vigilant to ensure your customers don’t fall victim to these scams. If your business makes outbound calls, you should monitor your numbers frequently to ensure they haven’t been hijacked for call spoofing purposes.
In addition, having a backup plan to inform you customers of any potential data breaches or call spoofing is a good idea to maintain your reputation. Consider also keeping a resource list to provide customers that may have fallen victim to scammers, such as identity theft protection services.