Scammers have a long history of preying on seniors. The social isolation that seniors are experiencing to avoid contracting COVID-19 has elevated the risk that they will be victimized by fraudulent schemes that target the elderly.
Seniors are more likely than others to experience serious symptoms of COVID-19. Concerned seniors are therefore searching the internet for information about the disease. They too often find websites that peddle fraudulent products, including home test kits and miracle cures.
The coronavirus “cures” are inevitably fraudulent and often dangerous, while the FDA has only authorized kits to collect samples for laboratory testing. No testing device that purports to deliver an immediate, in-home result has been approved by the FDA.
Financial Fraud and COVID-19
The government’s promise of stimulus payments to offset financial harm caused by stay-at-home orders has been exploited by scammers. Law enforcement authorities have identified and shut down hundreds of websites that purport to offer government benefits or stimulus payments. The websites are designed to capture social security numbers, bank account details, or credit card numbers. Criminals use that information to defraud the innocent.
Seniors who are concerned about the impact of the pandemic on the economy are also being lured into fraudulent investment schemes. Many of the sales pitches are made using robocalls.
The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center has registered more than 3,600 COVID-19 scams. Even when fraudulent websites do not request financial information, they may induce an unwitting visitor to download malicious software that allows hackers to gain control of the visitor’s computer.
Law enforcement authorities who chase scammers are fighting a difficult war. Identical websites with a slightly different domain name quickly replace the sites that the government shuts down. Seniors and their caring family members need to take action to assure that they are not subjected to financial fraud.
Educating Seniors About COVID-19 Fraud
Several government and private websites are providing information to help consumers recognize COVID-19 fraud. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) blog has warned of deceptive advertising for “intravenous (IV) Vitamin C and D infusions, supposed stem cell therapy, and immunity boosting shots.” In addition to bogus cures, the FTC cautions against sales pitches for low-cost health insurance that turns out to be worthless.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has created a web page to educate consumers about COVID-19 scams. Offers for worthless health insurance, stimulus payment “updates,” and other scams are often made by text or robocalls, two means of communication that the FCC regulates.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has created a web page that lists firms selling products that fraudulently claim to prevent, treat, mitigate, diagnose or cure COVID-19. Since it is not always easy to match a product to the firm that markets it, the FDA is also directing consumers to a Flickr album that showcases pictures of fraudulent products.
Private organizations also offer a wealth of information that a senior will find useful. An AARP page summarizes fraudulent COVID-19 schemes and contains links to other pages that provide detailed information. The website of the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants collects articles on a variety of fraudulent schemes, including charity scams, attempts to swindle people out of their stimulus checks, and healthcare cybercrime.
Action Steps to Shield Seniors from Fraud
While exercising social distancing, families and caregivers can warn seniors to be aware of scammers. Here are some simple steps that seniors can be encouraged to take to protect themselves from COVID-19 fraud.
- Do not respond to texts, emails or calls about checks from the government. No government agency will call you to ask for your social security number. They already know it. Direct deposits of stimulus checks are made to bank accounts that you disclose with your tax return filing. If you need to apply for a stimulus check online, find an official government website and verify its accuracy before submitting any information.
- Ignore all advertising for products that promise COVID-19 prevention, treatment, or testing. If a product seems too good to be true, it is probably fraudulent. If you have a concern about your health, talk to your doctor.
- Hang up on robocalls.
- Ignore emails that purport to come from organizations like the CDC and the WHO. You can visit their websites to get up-to-date information.
- Do not donate to Red Cross of any other organization in response to an email solicitation. Even a website might be spoofed. The safest way to donate is to send a check to a verified address.
- Do not make investment decisions based on the recommendations of anyone other than a trusted advisor.
- Do not click any link that is sent in an email.
- Do not give credit card numbers, bank account information, social security numbers, or any other identifying information to a stranger who calls you on the phone.
Staying safe and healthy is a priority for seniors. Protecting financial health is also important. Seniors should also be encouraged to get advice from someone they trust before taking any action that might expose them to a financial loss.
Photo by Jefferson Santos on Unsplash