In the world of fraud, catastrophe equals opportunity — and speed counts.
On February 24, more than two weeks before the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, a man named Craven Casper allegedly registered a website with the purpose of selling N95 masks, hand sanitizer, and personal protective gear — and soliciting donations to the “Global Coronavirus Relief Fund.” But federal prosecutors say Casper failed to deliver goods or donations, based on complaints from two dozen of his buyers.
As of May 1, Casper had been placed on home detention, awaiting indictment on wire fraud charges in that case and sentencing in another fraud case that predated the pandemic, according to court filings in the District of Columbia.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying anxiety provide the chance of a lifetime for scammers. All they have to do is tweak their usual approach. Need hard-to-find sanitizing supplies? Just send your credit card number or click on this malware link. Waiting on your stimulus check? Pay an upfront fee to speed the process. Trouble with technology while working from home? Simply call this 800 number and provide remote access to your computer. Some scammers have even set up fake COVID-19 testing sites. By April 29, the Federal Trade Commission had received 29,573 consumer complaints related to COVID-19. The Massachusetts attorney general’s office logged 3,174 COVID-19-related “consumer inquiries” between January 1 and April 29, according to a spokesperson.
“Scammers are very good at taking advantage of situations involving urgency or social isolation,” says Brendan Donahue, postal inspector program manager with the US Postal Inspection Service, one of several federal agencies that chase swindlers. “Whether it’s what we are going through now—a public health emergency—or national events [like] September 11, Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, we see scammers trying to take advantage.”
Even before the coronavirus upended society, today’s technology and the Internet made it easy for scammers to entrap us. They buy contact lists to send “phishing” e-mails that mimic trusted sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They send robocalls or texts, often using inexpensive phone apps that “spoof” a familiar or official phone number, such as the Social Security Administration. They troll the Web and social media to get just enough personal information to reassure us, and then threaten dire consequences if we don’t share more — like our banking information. They use search engine algorithms to promote legitimate-looking sites, enticing us to call bogus help lines or shop at their online sites.
In the last few years, scammers have become particularly adept at pretending to be something—or someone — they are not. By 2018, “imposter” scams — in which someone impersonates an institution or person to swindle unsuspecting marks — had overtaken identity and debt collection theft as the most common fraud reported by Massachusetts to the FTC. Often highly sophisticated, these scams include people pretending to be from the CDC, the Social Security Administration, tech companies, or even a close family member.
Contrary to popular belief, people of all ages fall victim to these scams. Among those who noted their age in complaints to the FTC, a third of those ages 20 to 29 lost money, compared with 13 percent of those ages 70 to 79 and 11 percent of those 80 and over. Elderly people often lose more money than younger victims in part because they have greater wealth to lose. But senior scams may be underreported because older victims worry gullibility is a sign of cognitive decline, says Martha Deevy, associate director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, which studies aging, including the effects of fraud on elder finances.
“Scam artists, both digitally and live, prey on that,” Deevy says. “It’s why oftentimes you hear about these older people who have lost tens of thousands of dollars.”
No matter our age, experts say scammers are very good at pushing us into what they call “the ether,” a state of arousal that clouds victims’ decision making. Credible-sounding texts, calls, and e-mails warn us to act now or dire results will follow: We will die from COVID-19; we will be arrested; we will lose everything on our computer; our bank accounts will be emptied; someone we love will be harmed. Some scammers tickle what researchers call “phantom” desires, such as lottery winnings of unimaginable magnitude or true love. Studies show the ether masks our ability to determine legitimacy, which makes scammers more powerful. It blinds us to red flags such as demands for personal information or payment via wired funds, cryptocurrency, or gift cards.
In one classic scam, victims are threatened with arrest if they don’t return alleged overpayments from the Internal Revenue Service. In a COVID-19 version, scammers play on financial worries by promising a quick stimulus check if you’ll only provide your Social Security number or pay upfront “fees.”
“The ether is a heightened emotional state where you’re no longer thinking rationally; you’re reacting emotionally,” says Doug Shadel, the director of AARP for the state of Washington and a fraud investigator and researcher who has listened to hundreds of scam calls and interviewed scammers himself. A scammer once told him: “I like to keep people in the altitude of the ether because if they ever drop into the valley of logic, I’ve lost them.”
Shadel describes what it feels like to be targeted by a scam: “OK, my heart’s starting to race faster. I’ve got little beads of sweat forming on my forehead. Now I’m in a heightened emotional state. I should not make a financial decision right now.”
While catching scammers seems like a game of whack-a-mole, he has faith that if technology got us into this mess, it will help get us out of it. Robocall blockers and spam blockers for cellphones and landlines help protect your devices from callers who ignore the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry. The Federal Communications Commission is also trying to cut down on the estimated 58.5 billion robocalls consumers received last year. On March 31, the commission approved new standards requiring carriers to authenticate the source of calls passing through their interconnected phone networks. (Systems must be in place by June 30, 2021.)
For now, your best defenses are knowledge and suspicion. If a stranger reaches out to you by phone or e-mail with COVID-19 treatments, for example, check it out at CDC.gov or with a trusted health care provider. Beware of supply offers that seem too good to be true. Legitimate government agencies will never ask you to reveal personal information over the phone or to pay fees. They will not threaten to arrest you. If you receive an “urgent” communication in an e-mail, call, or text message, pause. Take a breath. Don’t send money before verifying the request with friends or family. If you are victimized, report the scam.
Many COVID-19 scams are updated versions of the following classics. Scammers just rewrite their scripts to capitalize on what is most likely to send us into the ether. Here are some examples of the most common scams to watch out for.
1. Pay Social Security — or else.
About four years ago, Deevy, from Stanford, spotted an elderly neighbor buying Apple gift cards at the supermarket. A clerk, who had been trained to question anyone buying multiple cards, asked: “Weren’t you in here yesterday?” The woman, a widow, said she had received repeated calls from someone who claimed to work for the Social Security Administration. The caller told her that she had been overpaid ever since her husband’s death, and she had to pay the money back using gift cards. Deevy persuaded her to call the police on the spot. But by then, the woman had already lost $25,000.
Best defense: In 2019, the FTC received 389,563 reports of government imposter scams, by far the most common of its type. The agency says scammers are now preying on our desperation to receive government stimulus checks. Remember this: The government will not ask you to pay anything upfront to get your stimulus check. Anyone who suggests otherwise is a scammer. The FTC says to only use the official IRS portal to send queries about your check. Government agencies will not text or phone to say your Social Security or tax payments have been suspended. They will never ask to be paid in gift cards, wire transfers, cryptocurrency, or other non-traditional payment methods. They will not send an attachment with personal information. If you have a landline, contact your carrier and ask about call blocking. Or download an anti-spam app on your mobile phone.
2. Your bank account is in peril.
Meghan Barr, an editor at the Globe Magazine, was alarmed by a call from an 800 number on her cellphone in December from a man who said he was calling from her bank to verify several suspicious charges on her checking account. The caller said someone had attempted to make purchases at a luxury store in Miami. Rattled, Barr said she had not authorized the charges, and the man reassured her that he would secure her accounts — but needed to send her a security code via text message first. He asked her to repeat several security codes back to him over the phone.
Barr, 36, thought disaster had been averted until she got off the phone and checked her e-mail. She had received several messages from Santander Bank notifying her that her online banking username and password had been reset. Then her husband messaged asking if she had transferred $5,000 out of their checking account.
“I panicked and I ran, literally ran, out of the office,” she says. “There’s a Santander Bank right outside our office and I ran there, crying.”
The scammer had used the security codes to reset her online banking username and password, which enabled him to access and transfer money out of her account. Barr was eventually able to get the funds reinstated after the bank conducted a fraud investigation.
Best defense: COVID-19 has pushed us all into the financial ether these days, so beware of anyone asking for banking information. By spoofing her bank’s 800 number, Barr’s scammer was able to make the call appear legitimate. Santander Bank said in a statement that they never call or e-mail customers to request confidential information or passwords. In fact, when the bank sends pass codes, it warns customers about reading them to anyone — a fact Barr missed because she was in the ether. If you suspect a fraudulent call, banks say you should call the number on the back of your debit card or visit the website for a legitimate customer service number. The Massachusetts attorney general’s office also suggests putting a freeze on your credit (it’s free) to stop scammers from opening a line of credit in your name. It will not prevent you from getting a credit report.
3. Your computer is ruined.
My cousin Joe, 70, is smart and plugged in, college educated, and works part time in sales. So, when an e-mail said his Apple ID had been stolen, he knew not to click on the link. Instead, he searched on Google for the Apple help line and called a number that popped up. The “technician” asked for remote access to his computer, which he granted. “That made me nervous, but I figured, I’m talking to Apple,” he says.
He wasn’t, and the number in the Google results was a fake. The scammer said Joe’s online bank account was compromised and that he would have to purchase virus protection using Google Play cards. Joe bought $1,000 in cards and read back the personal identification numbers. To add insult to injury, when he became suspicious and used Google to find another help line, he was scammed out of another $500, partly because he was desperate to fix things and didn’t want to tell his wife. In the end, he had to tell her that he’d lost $1,500. But he reported the scammer to the FBI and posted about what had happened to him on Facebook. “Needless to say, I never got a penny back,” he says.
Best defense: Tech scams like this are just one more headache for businesses and their employees, many of them unused to working at home and distracted by the pandemic. The FTC also warns against phishing e-mails, for example, that look like they come from the IT department or company CEO but contain malware links or even requests to wire money. Don’t click on pop-up ads or respond to texts or e-mails about viruses, password control, or hardware issues. You can bank on scammers using search engine algorithms to their advantage, so make note of the official websites and help lines that come with software or hardware. If you’re working at home, know how to reach your company’s tech support directly. Although Apple did not respond to requests for comment about scams involving bogus help lines, the company does warn on its website about scams and misuse of Apple gift cards.
4. I’ve kidnapped your daughter.
Lisa, a 56-year-old nurse who lives in Arizona, got a call at home one night on her cell from a number she did not recognize from a Mexico-based area code. “Mom, oh my God, mom I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” a distraught voice said. Lisa called out the name of her daughter, who was then a college student in California. Next a man got on the phone and, using her daughter’s name, said he was holding her at gunpoint and would kill her if Lisa didn’t send money. As Lisa asked questions, he upped the ante by yelling, “Shut the [expletive] up, I’m going to kill her.”
Terrified, Lisa handed the phone to her husband and went to find one of her sons. They reached her daughter on FaceTime and realized she was fine. Meanwhile, the “kidnapper” asked for $1,000 and gave instructions on how to deliver the money. Lisa’s husband hung up before the scammer gave the address. She wrote about her experience on Facebook and reported it to the police, who told her there was nothing they could do. She’s not sure what made her pause and call her daughter. “At some point it just dawned on me, like you’ve heard of this sort of thing,” she says.
Best defense: Lisa’s experience was a variation on the prevalent “grandma scam” that uses fear to make older people think a grandchild has been kidnapped or is being held in jail on a trumped-up charge. Scammers rely on threats to prevent family members from checking where their loved ones might actually be. In a horrifying COVID-19 twist, some scammers claim to be a family member sick with coronavirus in a foreign country or in need of an immediate hospital payment. If this happens to you, follow Lisa’s example: Slow down, breathe, try to verify. Check with another family member. Ask questions that only a real relative would know. Try not to say a name; instead ask the “kidnapper” or “lawyer” the name of the person in trouble. Report any calls to law enforcement.
5. I love you. Send money.
A 76-year-old widow from Rhode Island refinanced her home, sold property, and cleaned out her accounts to send $660,000 to Army General Mathew Weyer in Afghanistan, a man she had met while playing the popular Words with Friends smartphone game. But “Weyer” turned out to be a fiction invented by an alleged criminal conspiracy of at least five people, who were busted and charged last year by the US attorney’s office in Rhode Island.
Romance scams tend to target people over 60, says Denise Barton, an assistant US attorney and the elder justice coordinator in Rhode Island who was involved in the case. “You often have fraudsters who will try and find elders who may be a little bit more isolated,” she says. “Somebody who’s not out and about speaking with their family all the time, or active in the community, or still working.”
Best defense: Beware of online suitors who can’t meet in person because, say, there’s a pandemic, or they just happen to be stationed overseas. Eventually, they may request money for medicine, airplane tickets, education, or something else. Postal inspectors are seeing an increased number of romance scams starting on gaming sites, rather than dating sites, Donahue says.
Romance scammers take their time grooming victims, partly because the payoffs are among the highest, according to the FTC. “They’ll build trust,” Barton says. “And then they just start to ask for things or personal information.” But if someone asks for money? “Take a beat,” she says.
“Pause before you give money to somebody. Talk to a family member. Talk to a neighbor. Talk to a friend,” she advises. “If you’re not certain about it, reach out to the police or any sort of social service organization.”
Susan Moeller is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.