If there’s one thing you can count on during a crisis, it’s that two types of people always seem to show up. The first are the people ready to dig in and help in whatever ways they can—cook meals, donate money, volunteer time. And then usually not too far behind them are the folks looking to make a quick buck off misfortune.
Fortunately, the good always seems to outweigh the bad! But that doesn’t mean playing ostrich—you know, burying your head in the sand—will keep the opportunists at bay. As conditions continue to change daily around COVID-19, it’s important to stay alert and keep an eye out for the most common forms of fraud, but especially coronavirus relief scams.
Remember, facts are your friends. And it’s probably pretty safe to say that your one crazy aunt who posts every coronavirus article she reads on Facebook is not exactly a qualified resource. Do yourself a big favor right now and arm yourself with the facts.
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Here’s what you need to look out for and the steps you can take to protect yourself from scammers trying to turn the coronavirus into their own personal payday. (Oh, and maybe keep scrolling past your aunt’s doomsday posts too!)
6 Signs of a Coronavirus Relief Scam
The federal government recently passed a $2 trillion coronavirus relief and stimulus plan. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) means that many Americans will soon be eligible to receive funds from the government. This, of course, means that coronavirus relief scams have popped up overnight to take advantage of and mislead as many people as possible.
For anyone now suddenly out of work, those who were already living paycheck to paycheck, the elderly and others, this money can mean their Four Walls—food, utilities, shelter and transportation—are taken care of for at least a little while longer. But getting scammed out of this money could be devastating.
These scams all start to look and sound the same. So, if you see any of these signs come across your phone, text messages, inbox, and yes, even your mailbox, proceed with caution.
1. “Get your coronavirus relief money faster!”
Anyone claiming they can get your coronavirus relief funds to you now or faster than the government is a liar, liar, pants on fire. Why? Because there’s a roll out system in place.
The first round of checks started going out via direct deposit earlier this month. Those funds went to people who filed 2018 and 2019 tax returns and who already had their direct deposit info on file. The next round will go out to folks on Social Security who didn’t file tax returns but provided direct deposit details on their benefits forms.
Round three and beyond is scheduled to begin the first week of May. These rounds, at about 5 million checks per week, will be for those without direct deposit info on file with the IRS. These paper checks will go out in reverse order based on adjusted gross income (AGI), starting with the lowest AGI.
Plus, now with stimulus money on its way out, the IRS is setting up a tracker so you can see where your funds are. And if you don’t file taxes for income-related or other reasons, you can use the same site to sign up to receive your payment.
Just like in elementary school, no line jumping will be allowed. No one’s getting early access to their relief check and no one can get you early access.
2. “We’ve got your ‘stimulus check’ or ‘stimulus payment.’”
It sounds just official enough to be legit, but it’s not. Come on, do you think the government is really going to pass up an opportunity to give something a more difficult name than is necessary? Nah.
Here’s the official name from the IRS for the money coming from CARES: “Economic impact payment.” So, if someone claims they can fast track your stimulus check or stimulus payment to you, say buh-bye Pinocchio!
3. “Hi, this is the IRS, FTC or FDIC calling.”
Nope, no it’s not. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)—any government agencies, period—don’t call people and ask for personal information. If someone claims to be from one of these organizations, hang up and report them to the organization they’re claiming to represent.
Right now, a lot of scammers are using text messages to try to defraud people. Don’t click any links in suspicious text messages. The government will not text you!
You can click the links below to get in touch with these agencies to report suspicious behavior:
And don’t forget about your local Better Business Bureau (BBB). They’re receiving and cataloging thousands of coronavirus relief check-related scam reports each day.
If you think you’ve been a victim of fraud, you can also contact your local field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to file a report.
4. “Give us your personal information.”
If someone says they need your personal information like your full name, birthday, bank account numbers, Social Security number, credit card information, or anything else to see how much relief you’re eligible for, to get you your relief check faster, or any other fishy sounding request, hang up.
If it comes in an email, mark it as spam. If you get it in a text message, delete it. If you get it through social media, report it. But whatever you do, don’t give this information up!
These scammers are good and can make things sound very official. But the IRS, the FTC and the FDIC, have all said they won’t call you and ask for your personal information. Prevent identity theft by holding on tight to your info.
5. “Pay this fee to get your relief check.”
If you’re eligible to receive a coronavirus relief check, there won’t be a fee to get it. Period.
6. “Call and verify your check.”
Some scammers will mail out fake checks for weird amounts with instructions to call a number to verify the amount in order to claim the money. The IRS does not do this.
While individual relief check amounts will vary, there is a range you can expect to see. For individuals who filed taxes in 2018 and 2019 and make less than $75,000 per year, they can expect a relief check of $1,200, plus $500 for each child.
So, say for example, a household has two adults and two children, that means the total amount of relief they’re eligible for would be $3,400. That’s $1,200 + $1,200 + $500 + $500 = $3,400. Make sense?
To qualify for full aid, your income before taxes, or your adjusted gross income, must be under $75,000 for each individual, $112,500 for head of household, or less than $150,000 for married couples filing jointly.
You can still receive aid if you make more than those amounts, but your relief check will be reduced. There is a $5 deduction per $100 your income is over these limits. And individuals with an income of more than $99,000 and married couples with income of more than $198,000 aren’t eligible for relief checks.
So, if you see a check for $18.22 or some other strange dollar amount come across your mailbox, stop right there. Contact the IRS to report suspicious behavior.
7 Ways to Protect Yourself From a Coronavirus Relief Scam
While some good ol’ fashioned common sense can go a long way in times like these, the fact is that a lot of scammers are pros. A polished scammer can dress up a lie as truth in a heartbeat. Here are some ways you can protect yourself from coronavirus relief scams, identity theft and other kinds of fraud.
1. Investigate any communications you receive about relief funds.
Most email service providers these days have crazy good spam filters. But with the volume of scams increasing each day because of the upcoming relief checks, don’t be surprised if suspicious email makes it to your inbox.
And don’t be surprised if it looks official. Anyone with the internet and some basic design skills can slap a government agency logo onto just about anything and make it look real.
Cell phone service providers are finally starting to get their act together these days too and mark suspicious looking incoming calls as potential spam. Now that’s one less call you have to field.
Check out the URL they’re using too. Government agencies’ websites end in .gov. A scammer might try to make their website look like a government agency by slipping a .gov into the fraudulent URL, like thisisascam-gov.net.
Remember, the overwhelming majority of folks eligible for a relief check will not have to do a thing to get it.
2. Report any suspicious communications.
If you receive suspicious phone calls, texts, social media messages—anything at all—immediately contact the agency the message is claiming to be from and ask for verification. Or report it as a scam. We can help protect each other the more we report fraudulent behavior.
3. Don’t click on links from sources you don’t know.
If you think you’ve received a fraudulent email, text or social media message, don’t click on any of the links. They could contain viruses meant to harm your device or steal personal information.
4. Enroll in identity theft protection.
If setting up identity theft protection is one of those things you’ve been saying you’ll get around to, then consider this the sign you’ve been waiting for. Get yourself set up with identity theft protection today. It’s very affordable and will protect you from financial loss if someone steals your identity, opens 17 credit cards and buys a yacht in your name. Don’t skip this.
5. Update your passwords.
Hopefully you’re updating all your online passwords regularly, but now is a great time to do a refresh. If you haven’t already, it’s time to part ways with using your dog’s birthday for everything.
Here are a few steps you can take to protect yourself:
- Change your passwords every 90 days.
- Use different passwords for different accounts.
- Use a combination of letters (upper and lowercase), numbers and symbols.
- Don’t use your username as the password or things like “password” or “123456.”
6. Set up credit report alerts.
Sometimes the only way you’re ever going to know that your identity has been compromised is when your credit report changes unexpectedly. This will be especially obvious if you’re debt-free, have no credit cards and therefore no credit score.
If all of the sudden your credit report shows you’ve just opened a new Costco credit card, then you’ll know for sure something’s not right. Set up alerts with the three major credit monitoring agencies—TransUnion, Equifax and Experian—and make sure everything looks exactly the way it’s supposed to.
7. Check in on your elderly loved ones.
Unfortunately, retirees and the elderly are prime targets for scams. They’re also the ones who are probably the most uncomfortable keeping up with rapidly changing technology. They might not know what to be on the lookout for.
Reach out to them. Call them on the phone. Check in and share what you’ve been learning about how to protect yourself from fraud.
Keep an Eye Out for the Good News
While there’s no doubt this time requires extra caution to keep ourselves both physically and financially safe, it’s also so important to keep a close eye on all the incredible ways people are using this time to tap into hope.
For every coronavirus news report you read, there are thousands more untold stories of people and communities finding ways to show up for each other, entertain each other, and inspire one another. Don’t let fear rob you of the ability to see these moments!
And you’re not alone. We may be practicing social distancing or even full-on quarantine, but we’re in this together. Use this time to get intentional—search for the good news, reach out to someone who might be feeling afraid or alone, or join an online community committed to sharing hope.
And if this crazy, weird time is making it crystal clear that you need to take control of your money once and for all, then check out Financial Peace University (FPU). This course will show you how to save more money, pay off debt, and financially prepare for the future.
It’s a money plan for real life. Coronavirus or no coronavirus, financial peace can be yours. Start FPU today!