This is a reprint of an article on the “Equifax.com” website regarding protecting yourself during this challenging time from scams and financial predators trying to take advantage of people’s stress, vulnerabilities, confusion and fear. Taking the time to read this could save you and those you love even more frustration now and as you pursue buying a home in the future.
“COVID + Credit: New Scams Put Identity at Risk during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Reading time: 10 minutes
Federal, state and city governments have taken steps to provide financial help to Americans during the Coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, some bad actors have used the recently relaxed eligibility requirements for state and federal aid to unleash new scams, stealing the identities of the people who most need help.
Watch out for these new scams making the rounds during the Covid-19 pandemic:
Covid-19 Scam #1: Stolen Federal Stimulus Payments
Federal stimulus payments have proven to be an easy target for scam artists. In April, as part of an effort to get checks to those in need, the Internal Revenue Service launched a portal to assist in funds distribution. Through this tool, eligible persons who did not file taxes in 2018 or 2019 are able to enter basic identifying information so the government can more easily distribute their stimulus payments.
Per IRS guidelines, users have been asked to provide a range of personal information, including:
- Full name, current mailing address and an email address
- Date of birth and valid Social Security number
- Bank account number, type of account and routing number, if you have one
- Identity Protection Personal Identification Number (IP PIN) if you received one from the IRS earlier this year
- Driver’s license or state-issued ID, if you have one
- For each qualifying child: name, Social Security number or Adoption Taxpayer Identification Number (ATIN) and their relationship to you or your spouse
Though the relatively simple data requirements are helpful for many Americans, the limited and basic nature of the information makes it easier for scam artists to claim checks that do not rightfully belong to them. Basic personal information can be stolen in a variety of ways, including through data breaches, fake websites asking for personal information, scam calls and phishing emails, all intended to trick unsuspecting Americans just trying to keep up with a deluge of important information.
Covid-19 Scam #2: Scam Artists Impersonating Government Agencies
It’s difficult to know who is really behind the email or phone call you’ve just received. In fact, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) has reported a rise in fake emails purporting to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other organizations claiming to offer information on the Coronavirus.
The FBI warns not to click links or open attachments from senders you do not recognize, as those actions can unlock malware and allow scammers to either steal personal information or lock your computer and demand payment. Consumers should also be wary of visiting websites or using apps claiming to track Covid-19 cases worldwide, as criminals are using these portals as a way to deliver malware to phones and personal computers.
Covid-19 Scam #3: Delivery Scams
If you’re older or immunocompromised or if you’re taking care of someone who is, you may need to have items like groceries or necessary medications delivered to your door. Ordering from a trusted source online is a safe way to go, but beware if someone you don’t know well offers to help.
Some scammers may offer to purchase and deliver your supplies but never return with the promised items while taking off with your money. As a general rule, it’s safer to ask for help from a friend or family member or to use a trusted delivery service.
Covid-19 Scam #4: Waylaid Donations
Donating to aid organizations such as your local food bank or hospital can help make a difference during the pandemic, but make sure your money is going where you intend it to. Sadly, the FBI has noted an increase in phishing emails that ask consumers to make donations to local hospitals and charities, or to access Covid-19 testing kits, cures or vaccines that are fake.
Protect yourself by researching your charity of choice before opening your pocketbook. Don’t make a donation in cash, by gift card or by wiring money, as these are common ways scammers ask for money. Verify legitimate charities at givewell.org or charitynavigator.org and visit the Federal Trade Commission’s website for more information on how to avoid donation scams. Never click on any links or download any information from an email sent by someone you don’t know personally.
Covid-19 Scam #5: Fake Zoom Invitations
Bad actors have started preying on those working remotely by sending fake Zoom invitations to bogus online meetings in an attempt to steal passwords. Pay attention to the wording of the messages you receive. If someone “demands your presence” or threatens to terminate you if you don’t attend, chances are it’s a scam. Make sure any video conference invitations you accept are coming from someone you know at your organization.
If you do click the link in a bogus message, you’ll generally be directed to a webpage that looks similar to a legitimate Zoom meeting screen but, in reality, is a page designed to get you to input your email password. Carefully review any messages sent from unfamiliar accounts and the webpages of any links you open. Be sure to reach out to your employer for clarification if you sense something is suspicious about a Zoom invitation you’ve received.
Covid-19 Scam #6: Bogus Offers for Vaccinations and Home Test Kits
Currently, there is no federally approved vaccine or home test for the Coronavirus, but that hasn’t stopped scammers from peddling their goods to worried Americans. If you’re concerned you may have contracted the virus, contact your doctor and ask about testing availability in your area. To help better protect your identity, never share your medical information, Social Security number or health insurance details.
How to Better Protect Your Identity from Covid-19 Scams
While you can never guarantee that your identity will be fully protected, here are five steps you can take right now to ensure your identity is better protected:
- Frequently check your savings, checking, credit card and other key financial accounts for unauthorized charges or withdrawals.
One of the best ways to help better protect your identity is to make sure you’re constantly up to date on the status of your financial accounts. Even setting aside five minutes per week to review every charge or withdrawal can make a difference in swiftly recognizing a threat to your identity. For your bank and credit card accounts, sign up for email or text notifications with your financial services providers, so you’ll get an instant notification if a charge is made.
- Contact your bank as soon as you notice any suspicious activity on your account.
If you see any item prompting concern on one of your accounts, contact your bank immediately. Explain your situation and ask about your options, which may include canceling your active credit or debit cards and being reissued new ones. Talk with your bank or credit card lender for more information on the specific remedies available to you.
- Frequently change your online passwords to better protect your information from data breaches.
The internet age has certainly provided many benefits amid the Covid-19 pandemic: You can now order groceries and stay in contact with friends and family while social distancing from home. However, an unintended consequence of moving secure information such as your telephone number or address to mobile apps that make life easier is that your personal information is now stored on more platforms than ever. If hackers access these systems, they could obtain your secure information without your knowledge.
To combat this problem, set up strong passwords (unique to each account) that have more than eight digits and include upper and lower case letters, numbers and at least one symbol. Set a reminder to change all passwords periodically, whether that’s annually, once every six months or as frequently as you can reasonably manage.
- Remove personal information from your social media accounts.
The more information scammers can glean from simply looking at your social media accounts, the easier it may be for them to steal your identity. Start by reviewing the privacy settings for each of your accounts and update them to remove excess information if need be. To reduce the risk of someone impersonating you, keep your mailing address, email address, phone number and other personally identifying information private.
- If your identity has been used to cash your stimulus check or apply for unemployment or other benefits, file a report with the relevant authorities.
Unfortunately, recent reports show that identity thieves have targeted those in the most need of financial aid during the Covid-19 pandemic. If you suspect that you have not received the aid you are eligible for because you are a victim of identity theft, contact the relevant local or federal authorities.
It’s unfortunate that bad actors are taking advantage of a pandemic to steal people’s identities, but you can take steps right now that can help better protect your information from thieves.”