The world is currently facing a viral pandemic that threatens personal health, employment, and financial markets. Local and national news media are tasked with issuing public service warnings and updating citizens on continuously changing rules that affect everyday life and liberty. In short, it’s an unprecedented and at times, stressful situation.

A sincere heartfelt thanks to those who are committed to population health and welfare, including those employed in healthcare, retail and cleaning; and the military and volunteers. Brave citizens continue to answer the call to support their communities, and sadly, criminals have pounced on the opportunity to undermine these, and other acts of service, in an effort to separate victims from these benefits.

As the US Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announce the distribution of economic impact payments to help those experiencing a loss of income due to stay-at-home ordering and social distancing measures, analysts are anticipating a steep rise in stimulus check fraud. These scams could include anything from fake businesses offerings to “expedite” stimulus checks for a fee; to phishing scams seeking to obtain personal information from taxpayers. Criminals may seek to obtain a victim’s social security number and current address, with the intent of diverting stimulus checks to an alternate account or physical address. It is critical to know that the stimulus checks will be sent automatically and the IRS is not contacting individual taxpayers seeking personal information.

Preying on fears of an invisible virus, the timeless snake oil scam rises from the ashes. Illegitimate sellers are attempting to hawk sham and non-FDA approved items such as COVID-19 test kits, vaccines, substances that claim to prevent infection by a virus, and treatments or cures for coronavirus. These items are useless at best; and at worst, could lead to personal harm. This is especially true for substances that claim to prevent viruses, as individuals could be incorrectly led to believe that social distancing is no longer required. Up to date medical information must be obtained from doctors, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization.

Charity fraud peaks during times of natural disaster, as the unscrupulous take advantage of individuals’ goodwill by setting up bogus charities. Legitimate charities will never ask for cash, gift cards, third party money transfers, or wires. Fake charities may also attempt to spread through unsolicited telephone calls, text messages, compromised email or social media accounts. If asked to donate via email or social media, talk to the sender directly to make sure that a friend or family member does in fact support that charity; and that their email account or social media page has not been compromised.

According to the FBI, commerce fraud is also on the rise. Criminals use websites and social media to advertise highly sought-after goods, such as personal protective equipment and personal hygiene products. In some cases, sellers stockpile products and charge exorbitant prices for essential items, which is known as price gouging. Currently, 36 states have laws that criminalize this practice, making it a reportable crime against consumers. A full list is available here.

Other criminals take a different approach, offering goods they do not actually own, which is known as seller fraud. Unsuspecting buyers purchase goods from what appears to be legitimate store fronts. The goods never arrive, which leaves buyers no recourse but to accept they have been cheated; or to attempt to charge back the purchase if it was made using a credit card. In the latter case, both the buyer and the credit card issuers are victims in this type of fraud.

To avoid falling victim to any of the aforementioned scams, AMLRS offers several tips:

  • Make online purchases from large, national retailers; using a credit card if possible
  • Do not provide information or money to strangers
  • Large government agencies never contact individuals to request personal information
  • If a stranger (anyone other than a first responder) provides urgent instructions, step away
  • Criminals use fear, intimidation, and a sense of urgency to entice people to act now
  • Avoid clicking on links; instead, manually type in the name of the government agency or charity
  • Be skeptical of information that is circulating; utilize government agencies to fact check material found on-line or circulating via social media
  • Before considering a donation to charity, the Federal Trade Commission offers a list of organizations that can be utilized to research the legitimacy of a charity.

AML RightSource encourages readers to share this information with friends and loved ones, with the hope that knowledge offers the power to combat crime taking place amidst a global crisis.

For additional information on COVID-19 fraud and related financial scams, check out the AML RightSource COVID-19 Resources page.