How to Avoid COVID-Related Financial Scams

Some criminals have learned how to profit off COVID-19 by scamming unsuspecting targets. We talked to experts to find out about the most common scams—plus how not to become a victim.

COVID-19 has been listed as the underlying cause of death on over 825,000 American death certificates, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus has also disrupted businesses and schools, and it's overwhelmed the US health care system. In addition, it's clear the pandemic has been a huge negative threat to our collective mental health.

As if the country hasn't experienced enough loss, stress, and anxiety, some criminals are profiting off of COVID-19 by scamming unsuspecting targets. Here are the most common scams experts see—along with advice to help you avoid falling for them.

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COVID-19 vaccination and testing scams

Obtaining a COVID-19 vaccine or booster shot hasn't always been easy for everyone in all parts of the nation. Same goes for getting a COVID test. Sadly, scammers are taking advantage of this lack of access.

"Scammers are offering COVID testing and vaccinations in an attempt to steal personal information," Cicely Jones, CEO of MPA Financials in Pleasant Grove, Alabama, tells Health, adding that fraudsters are specifically targeting Medicare patients. But it's important to know the vaccines are free to the public—no "special deal" is needed.

"Please be mindful of who you share your personal information with; also, don't post a photo of your vaccination card online," Jones says. "Scammers could steal your name, birth date, and other personal information."

Another con: Some scammers are actually selling fake tests. Before you purchase a test, even if it's from a legit pharmacy or other store, check it against the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) list of approved antigen diagnostic and molecular diagnostic tests. Fake tests provide fake results, which can lead to people inadvertently infecting others and also delaying treatment—since they don't know that they actually have COVID.

COVID-19 treatment scams

The Federal Trade Commission has sent cease and desist letters to numerous companies claiming to use sound frequencies, facial brushes, supplements, IV drips, essential oils, salt therapies, and other unproven remedies to prevent or treat COVID-19.

"During times of crisis, emotions run high, fear creeps in, and defenses lower," attorney Leslie H. Tayne, founder and managing director of the Tayne Law Group in New York City, tells Health. "People desperately want help, and they naively believe a con artist's claims."

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains a searchable list of warning letters sent to companies selling unproven COVID-19 cures, plus some sent to companies selling fake KN95 masks. If you're not sure about the benefits and safety of a remedy, therapy, or mask, check the list and see if the company manufacturing it is in the FDA database. If it isn't but the pitch sounds too good to be true, play it safe by steering clear.

COVID-19 funeral-related scams

If you've lost a loved one to COVID-19, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides assistance to pay for the funeral expenses. The organization will pay up to $9,000 for funeral services, cremation, interment, transportation, casket or urn, and other expenses for any US citizen with documentation attributing cause of death to COVID-19.

"However, scammers pretending to be from FEMA are calling people to offer program registration to surviving family members," explains Jones.

In real life, FEMA doesn't just randomly call people. Unless you've initiated contact to ask for assistance, don't expect them to contact you out of the blue. And if you do answer a call claiming to be from FEMA, Jones warns against providing any personal or financial information (either your info or that of your deceased relative). Also, keep in mind that FEMA will not ask you to pay in order to receive assistance.

COVID-19 charity scams

"Fake charities always pop up during times of disaster, and scammers use this vulnerable time to prey on an individual's sympathy," says Jones.

In a COVID-19 charity scam, Jones explains, a scammer will make up a charity name or even pretend to represent a real charity. They could claim they are helping people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and need a place to stay. Or the fraudster could try to convince you that they need donations to help families who lost a loved one to COVID-19. Other scams include raising money to help families displaced during the pandemic, or raising funds to help pay medical expenses related to COVID.

Of course, many of us want to use our money to help others, especially during a pandemic that's caused so much hardship. But it's important to "protect your identity and your money; don't share personal information like your bank account number," Jones urges. After all, a legitimate charity will never ask you for that info; instead, they'll offer you a verifiable PayPal or mailing address for donations.

COVID-19 student loan relief scams

The US government paused federal student loan payments at the beginning of the pandemic. So if you have outstanding student debt and someone says you need to pay a fee to take advantage of the federal pause, don't fall for it—it's not legit.

The pause has been extended, but it's only supposed to continue through May 1, 2022, says Jones. As that date comes closer, the Biden administration may again extend the moratorium—and at some point, mass cancellation is also a possibility. No matter what happens, you shouldn't need to pay anything extra or provide your personal information to any new parties. If you have any questions, contact your student loan servicer to obtain legitimate information.

COVID-19 payment scams

The government has provided several stimulus or Economic Impact Payment (EIP) checks to qualifying Americans, and another round may be distributed in the future. In addition, eligible business owners received pandemic-related funding and loans. However, most people don't have to do anything to get their stimulus payment. And business owners will need to apply to receive any relief loans or grants.

"Consider it a red flag if you receive emails or calls from a company claiming they can help you get stimulus payments or promising COVID-19 relief loans for a fee," warns Birmingham, Alabama-based financial expert Tae Lee, who created "Game of Fortune: Win in Wealth or Lose in Debt," a new financial literacy game.

"This is a way for criminals to get all of your personal information, such as social security number, address, and credit card info," she warns. "They may take money out of your account or try to steal your identity."

Tayne warns of yet another payment-related con. "These scammers say that Social Security benefit recipients need to pay to continue receiving their monthly payment," she says. "But this is not true—benefits haven't stopped, and won't stop during the pandemic."

How to avoid COVID-19 scams

Lee advises against clicking on suspicious emails, and she suggests hanging up ASAP if a phone call doesn't sound or feel right. Even if the source looks legitimate, she recommends taking a few extra steps.

"Verify the company with the Better Business Bureau, check out the company's social media account, and Google the company's ratings and look for customer reviews," she says.

It also helps to understand how government agencies operate. "The IRS will never ask you for your personal information or threaten your benefits by phone, email, or text," Jones says.

Tayne adds that government agencies won't usually contact you first—and when they do, it will be by snail mail. "Check government websites or call official locations if you have questions about your Social Security benefits, student loans, et cetera," she advises.

If you believe you were the victim of a scam or that scammers targeted you, report it to the proper authorities as soon as possible, says Tayne. "Depending on the nature of the fraud, you may have to contact FEMA, the IRS, the Social Security Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, your state's unemployment office, or your state's attorney general," she explains.

And if you gave out any personal information or sent money, she recommends that you contact your bank and keep tabs on your financial accounts and credit reports.

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