By Allison Dikanovic and Lauren Costantino, Originally published in THE CITY.
Even as the coronavirus crisis brings out the best in some people, scammers are seizing the opportunity to take advantage of struggling New Yorkers.
“Unfortunately in times of crisis, people who run usual cons adapt really quickly to take advantage of the situation,” said Mary McCune, a staff attorney at Legal Services NYC who specializes in consumer protection.
McCune and other local experts said a new crop of scams related to the virus has popped up all over the city — ranging from attempts to steal stimulus checks to selling fake cures and vaccines.
Carlyn Cowan, chief policy officer at the Chinese-American Planning Council, said many clients are having trouble figuring out what information is trustworthy and knowing how to get the resources they desperately need.
“For folks who really need to be able to pay for rent, groceries or medications, they may fall prey to those scams because they need help as soon as they can get it,” she said.
Cowan’s advice is time-tested: “If someone is making an offer that seems too good to be true, it usually is,” she said.
Here are the most common current scams, with tips on protecting your information and finances:
STIMULUS CHECK SCAMS
Some scammers are calling and pretending to be from the IRS, offering to help folks get their stimulus check faster, according to McCune. The callers ask for bank information or other personal details needed to rob people of their checks.
People are also receiving messages that appear to be related to the stimulus checks, but actually lead to tax-related fraud and identity theft, according to the IRS website.
McCune offered some simple advice: Don’t trust anyone on the phone who says they’re from the IRS.
“No one from the federal government is going to call you,” she said. “That’s not how it works.”
The IRS set up a portal where you can check on the status of your payment and set up direct deposit. The agency also has updated recommendations on how to avoid stimulus and tax-related scams, and frequently posts tips on Twitter.
FAKE GOVERNMENT AGENCY CALLS
Some New Yorkers told THE CITY they’ve gotten calls from people posing as representatives from government agencies. The callers offer to help people access government benefits such as SNAP or Medicaid, and ask for personal information.
The government likely won’t be calling you: At this time, a major exception to this rule is the state Department of Labor. Due to the backlogged system, representatives are calling some New Yorkers to help them complete their unemployment benefit claims.
The department warned that calls may come from private numbers, which some people may see as a red flag. In order to ensure security, the representative should verify their identity by telling you the date you filed your application and the type of claim you filed.
You may be asked to verify certain aspects of your application, but a department representative will not ask you for your full social security number or your banking information over the phone.
One scam tipoff: You should not need to pay anyone a fee to access a government benefit. Another indicator: if the caller is trying to rush you into a decision.
“If someone says, ‘If you don’t act now, you lose the opportunity forever,’ that is not true, and that is probably a scam,” McCune said.
If you don’t think the person calling you is from the government agency they say they are from, you can call the agency directly to verify, or you can call the New York State Division of Consumer Protection helpline at 800-697-1220.
SOCIAL MEDIA SCAMS
Some scammers are posting on social media with coronavirus-related offers asking people to click on a link that leads to a seemingly real website — and then stealing personal information.
One version of this scam is a Facebook post that advertises to seniors a “special grant to help pay medical bills,” according to the Better Business Bureau website.
The link leads to a fake website claiming to be a government agency called the “U.S. Emergency Grants Federation,” which requests personal banking information and your social security number in order to receive funds.
In addition to taking your money, these kinds of scams can download malware onto your device and can use your information for identity theft.
Experts advise to be wary of social media ads and posts that appear to offer assistance from government agencies. Verify the agencies and the websites — and remember that “free” government benefits do not cost money.
If a friend reaches out to you on social media with a coronavirus-related offer, check in to make sure their account wasn’t hacked.
EMAIL ‘PHISHING’ EXPEDITIONS
Scams known as “phishing” happen when attackers use fake websites disguised as official sites as well as email and social media messages to trick people.
The emails often offer “coronavirus updates” and contain a call to action. The idea: to entice people into visiting a website that scammers use to steal data, usernames and passwords, credit card details, and other personal information.
Don’t click on any links from any COVID-19-related email you’re not expecting.
If you get an email out of the blue claiming to be from the government, it’s probably not from a government agency, according to McCune.
Call the agency and ask if they are emailing people. That way you’ll know what kind of communication to expect.
If you get an email from a familiar company, like Dropbox or Google, and you’re not sure whether the link is safe, you can first hover over the link without clicking it, said Tyler Moffitt, security analyst at Webroot, a cybersecurity company.
Then check to see where the link is actually taking you by looking for the full URL in the bottom left corner of your screen. Moffitt warns that this method isn’t foolproof, as some scammers have figured out how to host their fake website on a real internet domain.
HARMFUL EMAIL ATTACHMENTS
Some malicious cyber actors are using COVID-related lures to convince people to download an attachment that contains malware — or “malicious software” designed to harm your computer and your data.
Trust your instincts: If an email attachment seems suspicious, don’t open it, even if your antivirus software says it’s OK to.
For phishing emails with attachments, don’t click “enable content.”
“If it’s telling you to enable content — to click the yellow button at the top to run the macro — that is the scam,” said Moffitt. “If you don’t click enable content, you’re going to be safe.”
You can read more security tips from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency here.
Price gouging is illegal for any item or service related to stopping the spread of the coronavirus.
But that doesn’t stop some business owners from taking advantage of the fact that the public needs certain essential goods — like food and disinfectant spray — and are hiking prices.
New York State Attorney General Letitia James has sent out more than 1,300 cease-and-desist orders to businesses for price gouging, said Delaney Kempner, a spokesperson for James’ office.
“Price gouging is something we can take action on and order businesses to stop selling these things,” she said. “We can take them to court and have them shut down.”
SCAMMERS LOVE A CRISIS. HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF
You can report price gouging to the state by using this online complaint form or calling 212-416-8000. You also can report overcharges on essential goods to the city by using this online complaint form or calling 311.
Scammers are also taking advantage of New Yorkers’ good will.
While people are providing remarkable and legitimate forms of aid and support all around the city, it’s important to verify an organization or group before you donate.
You can research a group online using resources like Charity Navigator or give.org. But some mutual aid work operating at a neighborhood level may be harder to verify in that way. In those cases, look at social media pages and talk to people you trust before giving.
BOGUS TREATMENTS OR CURES
There is no vaccine or cure yet for the coronavirus, according to the federal Food and Drug Administration.
Air purifiers cannot remove the virus from the air. Creams do not protect you from the virus. You can see the latest advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about how to protect yourself from the virus here.
You can only get a coronavirus test at a medical testing site. Home test kits are not real and do not work.
DEBT OR MORTGAGE REFINANCING SCAMS
If you are in a tight financial spot because of the crisis and struggling to make loan payments, you may look for a way to get the money you need faster.
However, McCune warns that many people reaching out offering to help you refinance or reduce a loan may be taking advantage of you.
You should not pay anyone any fees to get help with your loan or mortgage.
McCune said your best bet is to call your loan officer or the people who process your payments, and they can help you figure out options. Ask them what is happening to your loan and if any benefits are available to you.
DO YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE BEEN SCAMMED?
If you gave out your personal information to someone over the phone or online, Kempner said there aren’t many options for recourse.
But there are steps you can take to minimize the damage.
You can get free one-on-one financial counseling by contacting the NYC Financial Empowerment Center. The counseling can happen over the phone, though you have to create an online account first.
You can also call a trusted local community-based organization to see if they provide financial counseling or can connect you with another trustworthy local organization that does.
If you logged into a fake website or gave information online, the first thing you should do, according to Moffitt, is change your username and password for your real accounts.
Scammers are clever: They know that many people use the same login information for multiple accounts. So if you divulge your password on a fake website, then scammers will most likely use this information to hack other accounts.
If you gave out banking information to someone, you should notify your bank and the IRS immediately.
You can fill out this form, and the IRS will take a second look at anyone trying to file anything in your name.
You should also report incidents of possible identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission via this form, or by calling the Identity Theft Hotline at 877-438-4338.
If you gave out any credit card information, you should contact your credit card company and the fraud departments at the three major credit reporting agencies:
• Equifax… 800-525-6285
• Experian… 888-397-3742
• TransUnion… 800-680-7289