A few days ago, I noticed some unusual charges on one of my credit cards, including a $60 charge for Chipotle, which, while delicious, is not an establishment I have been frequenting during the quarantine. (Although I really could go for a carnitas bowl right about now.) It only took me a few minutes to realize that my card had been compromised, and the thief was using it without my authorization.
Credit card theft is frustrating in ordinary circumstances, but even more annoying during a global pandemic that has left my husband, also an attorney, and I working from home full-time while taking care of our two young children. Fighting fraud is the last thing I want to be doing.
A few days later, I received an email from a company that provides continuing legal education, informing me that someone had hacked their system. The company told me that someone had gotten access to their customers’ credit card information, including mine. It made me realize that everyone, including lawyers (who often think they are savvier than the common or even technologically sophisticated criminal), is susceptible to fraud and scams.
Now, in the time of COVID-19, we are even more vulnerable to data privacy scammers and cyber attackers who are taking advantage of those who are already facing financial, emotional, and personal difficulties brought on by the global health crisis.
Many federal agencies have created websites to help consumers identify fraud and scams so that they can avoid them or seek help if they fall prey to the schemes, including the
- U.S. Department of Justice
- U.S. Department of the Treasury
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
- U.S. Federal Trade Commission, and
What types of scams and fraud should I be looking for?
Since COVID-19 began, several kinds of fraud and scams have surfaced, including:
- offers for fake cures, vaccines, and unproven treatments
- fake shops and websites offering to sell high demand medical supplies like masks and hand sanitizer;
- fake testing kits
- charity scams
- phishing scams where scammers to trick you into clicking on or downloading a link that allows them access to your computer and any personal and financial information you have stored
- phone calls and emails asking for personal and financial information in exchange for help applying for things like grants, stimulus checks, loans, or unemployment compensation, etc.
- fraudulent offers for medical advice or COVID-19 testing in exchange for Medicare beneficiary information that the scammer then uses to file bogus claims, and
- investment scams asking you to invest money in publicly traded companies that the scammer falsely suggests will be able to prevent, cure or detect COVID-19
Unfortunately, this list is not exhaustive of all of the types of scams and fraudulent schemes that are out there. As fast as criminal scammers can develop their schemes is as fast as consumers face the threat of falling prey to their tactics.
How can I protect myself from falling for a scam or fraudulent scheme?
The various federal governmental agencies listed above have also provided guidance on how to avoid falling for COVID-19-related scams. Their advice includes taking some or all the following steps:
- Independently verify the identity of any company, charity, or individual that contacts you regarding COVID-19. Do not rely on the person contacting you to verify their identity. Independently search for the organization or individual and call them to verify the information.
- Check the websites you are directed to. For instance, the CDC’s website is cdc.gov. A scammer may try to entice you to visit a fraudulent website, like cdc.org, that is similar but not the real website.
- Question any unsolicited offers for supplies, treatment, or other assistance, especially if they ask you for any personal or financial information.
- Do not click on links or open email attachments from unverified or unknown sources.
- Ignore offers for COVID-19 treatment, tests, or cures that do not come directly from your trusted health care providers.
- Be wary of any organization that asks you to provide payment or donations in cash, wire transfer, gift card, or through the mail.
- Hang up on illegal robocalls.
Who can I trust?
If you are concerned that something sounds like a scam, it probably is. Stick to obtaining information from trusted sources, including:
- your physician or other trusted health care provider;
- the Center for Disease Control (CDC);
- the World Health Organization (WHO);
- the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) (to verify that companies with whom you are investing are legitimate);
- the Federal Trade Commission;
- the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; and
- the Better Business Bureau (to see reviews for organizations and businesses that have contacted you).
As always, be cautious of anything that seems suspicious or too good to be true. It is important to remain vigilant — both now and after the COVID-19 crisis is over — to make sure that you are taking all of the steps necessary to protect yourself and your finances. The last thing you need amid dealing with this global health crisis is to put your personal information or finances at even greater risk.