The pandemic has brought forth a wave of scams.
A new Better Business Bureau study, released Wednesday, has found that government impostor scams are continuing to thrive, even more so now as the pandemic presents new opportunities to take advantage of people.
These types of scammers have been around for years but this recent batch is taking it to the next level, spoofing the big agencies tied to helping people during the crisis.
“Whenever there’s a moment of unrest or discord there’s a crisis, scammers prey on people‘s fears,” said Phylissia Clark with the Better Business Bureau Serving North Central Texas. “They prey on people‘s lack of information and confusion. And also the sense of urgency related to whatever is going on.”
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If scammers prey on people’s vulnerabilities, there’s plenty of that to go around right now.
According to the BBB study, the Social Security Administration said impersonators have quadrupled since last year. Nearly half of Americans in a survey said they have experienced this type of scam before.
“Every little twist and turn related to COVID-19 has given scammers new opportunity to spoof an agency because people are expecting to hear from them,” said Clark.
Don't become a victim
In recent months, the CDC has been spoofed by scammers posing as contact tracers, tricking you into thinking you’ve been exposed so you can give them sensitive information. Others ask for “donations” to the CDC. The requests can come in the form of phone calls or emails.
OSHA has been spoofed with fake “workplace compliance” issues.
Scammers are even spoofing the Small Business Administration, randomly targeting small businesses and entrepreneurs that are often are desperate for funding to keep their businesses open and employees paid.
"There are scams out there for government grants, making business owners think that they might be eligible for some additional funding to get through this,” said Clark. "There are a lot of funding opportunities out there so it’s not unusual to hear about some new grants or citywide business assistance program that’s out there. People are used to being able to access this money in a time of crisis."
But this is where the BBB is warning consumers to use caution with anyone who reaches out directly about a "new funding opportunity."
“If you get something from an agency that you’ve never heard of or something that you’re not expecting. Or something that just seems out of the box or strange, like this particular agency, would not contact you – that’s a massive red flag," she said. "If you haven’t heard about it, take pause. If it’s something that seems too good to be true, take pause."
This is also the time where consumers must be careful with how they transmit personal information.
"Be reluctant to give out bank accounts over the Internet. Make sure you’re giving this to someone you’ve thoroughly vetted," Clark said. "Be careful when you click on links or reply to text messages, because you could get placed on a list or malware could get installed on your computer."
Beware of stimulus check scams
We spoke to Gary Smith, a special agent for the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, or TIGTA. It’s a division of the U.S. Treasury Department specifically working with the Internal Revenue Service to crack down on these scammers and launch investigations to help consumers.
He said Texas is the third most victimized state for IRS scams, with losses over the years totaling $7 million.
Right now, Smith’s department is getting inundated with complaints from across the country of stimulus check fraud. In some cases, a real IRS or local law enforcement number is spoofed to get the person to answer the call.
“The scammers are very opportunistic so they’re looking for any avenue in which they can try to scam somebody," he said.
Since March, Smith said millions have been called by scammers posing as IRS employees, offering to help them get their stimulus check quicker. Others are stealing identities or even people stealing checks through the mail.
“The IRS is never going to call you, send you an email or send you a letter asking for your personal information. They’re just not going to do that so that should be the first red flag,” he said. "The scammers are very aggressive, they’re very convincing. So they will try to lead you down a path where you feel like you have no other choice but to cooperate with them.”
Smith said it's hard to catch these scammers -- who almost all operate abroad -- and he's warning people to prepare for another wave of scammers once the second round of stimulus checks go through.
“We’re sure there will be lots of scams out there. The scammers are working very hard to stay one step ahead of the game. So they’re paying attention to what’s going on,” he said. “There’s no doubt that they’ll be reaching out to taxpayers across the country trying to scam them out of their hard-earned money.”
Since his agency began investigating in 2013, they’ve criminally prosecuted 182 different people involved in these IRS impostor scams in federal court. So far, about half of them have been sentenced to a combined total of over 393 years in federal prison.
"So the federal judges have been pretty harsh on these criminals, and rightfully so," he said. "Some of the stories you hear across the country of people being victimized is heartbreaking, people losing their entire retirement, their homes and different things," Smith said. “We’re starting to see some successes in prosecuting people involved. Our agency will continue to be dedicated to that moving forward.”
So the big takeaways: Just hang up. Delete the text. Ignore the email.
None of these major agencies are going to reach out to you directly by phone. A contact tracer or the IRS is not going to ask you for money through a VISA gift card.
If you need to file a complaint about a government agency impostor, here are some numbers you can call:
- IRS: The IRS advises people to fill out the “IRS Impersonation Scam” form on TIGTA’s website, tigta.gov, or call TIGTA at 1-800- 366-4484.
- Social Security: SSA IG has its own online form to take complaints about frauds impersonating the SSA.
- Federal Trade Commission: 877-FTC-Help or ftc.gov.
- Internet Crime Complaint Center: https://www.ic3.gov/complaint/ splash.aspx.
- Contact your cellphone carrier, which may offer free services such as scam call identification and blocking, ID monitoring, a second phone number to give out to businesses so you can use your main number for close friends or a new number if you get too many spam calls.
- You can also file a report with the BBB using the BBB Scam Tracker.