As the number of COVID-19 cases increases, so too do the scams. Scams are a problem, even when the world is not in the midst of a pandemic. In 2019, more than $10 billion dollars was lost in phone scams alone. Scams can come in the shape of phone calls, ads, emails, texts.
Before you buy face masks, disinfecting wipes, colloidal silver, or other promised COVID-19 treatments. you can take a series of steps to protect yourself.
1. Phone calls: if you don’t recognize a phone number, be careful when you answer. Sometimes, calls come in from the same number on a daily basis; you should not respond. And don’t give out any personal information unless you know (or have checked out) the person on the other end.
Scammer calls, which often take the form of robocalls, ”were already a huge and growing problem prior to the coronavirus,” said Consumer Action National Policy Advocate Lauren Hall. She added that “scammers never let a good crisis go to waste, and this one has given them tons of material. Unfortunately, scammers can spoof numbers—so you may get a call that says it’s from the health department or the CDC. Unless you were expecting one, let it go to voicemail.”
To shut them down, she recommends “screening and blocking services like Nomorobo. Wireless service providers also offer call-filtering apps, while your smart phone likely has built-in features to block spam calls.” You might even want to put your phone on do not disturb..”
2. Online purchases: Almost anyone can set up an online shop under just about any name. Here are some important steps to take before you buy:
Confirm the online seller’s physical address and phone number in case you have questions or problems, recommends the Federal Trade Commission (the government agency responsible for preventing deceptive practices). Check out the return policy. Comparison shop; if it seems to be too good to be true, it probably is. And don’t forget to factor in shipping costs, which may be double the original price. Take your time, counsels the National Consumer League.
If you get a pop-up message asking you for financial information while you’re browsing, don’t reply or hit the link. Legitimate companies don’t ask for information that way. Be careful about any links. Don’t click on them if you don’t know the sources. If you do, then you might download virtual viruses onto your computer or device.
Ignore online offers trying to sell you vaccinations or home test kits. As the FTC points out, scammers may try to get you to buy products that have not been shown to treat or prevent the Coronavirus disease 2019. They will try to feed on your uncertainty. If you are at all tempted to buy, then go to the FDA website to see if there is any basis for the claim. And make sure to check out the seller as well.
“If you’re trying to buy something in short supply like hand sanitizer, it’s safest to buy from the retailer and not from unknown third party sellers, of which there are many,” notes Hall. She points out that, even a site like Amazon or WalMart.com, “sellers can and do fake hundreds of positive reviews.”
3. Payment: Use a credit card, don’t send a check (or cash!), and never wire money. Your purchase will then be covered by the Fair Credit Billing Act, which provides protection against fraudulent charges. If your credit card information is stolen, and someone then uses it without your permission, your liability generally is limited to the first $50 in charges. Your credit card company may go even further, so that you won’t be responsible for paying any of those unauthorized charges made to your card. Make sure to check your credit card statements carefully each month – or, these days, even more frequently — to make sure you recognize all of the payments.
4. Financial help: The federal government has already undertaken some steps to help, including waiving interest on all federally-held student loans. States and the federal government are trying to help homeowners facing eviction or foreclosure. But don’t respond to texts and emails about checks from the government. If someone tells you they can get you the money from the federal government now, then that person is a scammer. If you do get a check in the mail, make sure it is legitimate. And if you are told that your Social Security benefits will decrease because of COVID-19, that too is a scam, warns the federal government.
5. Stay safe. Finally, Hall counsels that if you don’t give out your personal or financial information— including online services you use to send or receive money, like Zelle, PayPal, or Venmo — then you’re less likely to get scammed.
As we spend more time at home, and – probably – more time trying to find things online, beware. Be even more careful now than ever.
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