Beware Fraudsters Taking Advantage of the Pandemic

As more communications and digital transactions move online, it becomes critical to be vigilant around protecting personal information. Every year, millions of older Americans fall victim to cybercrime. Since the onslaught of COVID-started, there has been a 209 percent increase in the use of older adults’ personal IDs to commit fraud. On average, elders lose almost $3 billion annually to this type of abuse.

In October 2020, the U.S. Attorney Generals’ office in Minnesota charged 60 people with scamming more than 150,000 older people out of more than $300 million. Throughout the remainder of 2020, new records may be broken for this level of scamming.

From claims that utilities will be shut off if a payment is not made immediately to holiday charity fraud, there are numerous scams happening. Much of the population is familiar with scams and unfortunately, none are immune to them. And while younger adults can more easily recover, financially, older adults can sometimes lose their retirement savings.

What follows is a COVID-19 fraud checklist to ensure bank accounts, credit cards and identity remain out of the hands of criminals, especially as the pandemic hits another surge, and as scammers use new methods to commit fraud.

COVID-19 Fraud

As the United States grapples with COVID-19, scammers have taken advantage of the confusion and developed new hoaxes that prey upon older adults’ fears of contracting the virus. Scammers using a wide range of tactics to harm older adults emotionally and financially. Here are a few new COVID-19–related scams specifically targeting older adults, plus actionable steps to consider when encountering them.

COVID-19 Home Testing Kits

Many scammers are calling or texting older adults offering “coronavirus testing kits” in an attempt to collect financial information such as credit cards or bank account numbers. In some cases, people are asked to verify their Medicare ID, Social Security number or home address. Most test kits being advertised are neither FDA-approved nor accurate. For more information on COVID-19 home testing kits, consult a physician or a medical office to ensure that the test is legitimate.

Fake COVID-19–related Products and Services

Scammers are selling products to treat or prevent COVID-19 without proof that they work. Examples include fake drugs, vaccines and other devices. Instead people should follow government public health guidelines. If targeted by fake COVID-19–related products and services, it’s best to not respond to texts or emails. Instead mark unverified senders immediately as spam and block incoming calls that are not saved in a contact list.

Stimulus-related Scams

The Department of Justice is aware of several scams related to the CARES and HEROES acts that were offered as part of the federal government’s response to COVID-19. These scams ask consumers to provide bank account information so funds can be “released” or loan applications can be approved by the government. Earlier this month, the State of Colorado announced it successfully foiled scams, preventing the payment of nearly $1 billion in fraudulent claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, federal money intended for out-of-work freelancers, gig workers and the self-employed. Scammers will do everything possible to try to obtain personal information, so it’s important to be aware of various ways of going about this. If a local organization requesting personal information is unfamiliar, it’s best to call the state’s Better Business Bureau.

Charity Scams

Fraudsters are now tricking people into giving money to false charities, especially as the holidays approach. Similar to real charities, they might set up a website or collection page for a noteworthy cause, sometimes even supporting it with a heart-wrenching (but fake) story about a person in need. Some make a phone calls masquerading as granddaughters or grandsons asking for financial assistance for a noteworthy cause. After the victim donates, the site will show no signs of its existence and/or the phone number will disappear. Verify any charity under consideration for donating, and never click on links from unfamiliar sources.

Verified Nonprofits Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic:

Outside of COVID-19, identity theft, credit card and debit card fraud, investment scams and prize and lottery fraud continue to be a problem.

Fraud Prevention Solutions

There are many types of fraud prevention solutions on the market. At the consumer level, popular options would be services like Transunion and Experian (the same agencies that provide credit reports). These companies will use their vast resources to identify potential risks and can provide a single, secure access point for all of online accounts.

To store important documents or personal information, consider using an app like Pillar Life. Pillar uses multiple layers of industry-leading protection so that no one except the person storing information will be able to access said information.

Lastly, earlier this year the U.S. Attorney General’s office set up a dedicated hotline to report elder abuse and elder fraud, call 1-833-FRAUD-11 (1-833-372-8311) and the Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crimes will be there to help.

The National Elder Fraud Hotline serves all adults ages 60 and older seven days a week. Reporting financial losses from some types of fraud as soon as possible—within three days—can increase the likelihood of recovering losses. Reporting is essential because it is the first step in connecting the victim to authorities and can help to identify those who commit fraud—preventing additional victims.

Michael Bloch is the CEO and Founder of Pillar, a family-first digital platform that makes it easier for people to organize, store and protect important family documents.