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How To Protect Yourself From Coronavirus Scams

Hacker prints a code on a laptop keyboard to break into a cyberspace
The top three scams in 2020 were identity theft, imposter scams, and online shopping fraud.

According to authorities, a huge surge in fraud cases targeting seniors and other vulnerable populations affected by the pandemic has been reported.

With the COVID-19 pandemic came a surge in frauds and scams, like identity theft, as well as online shopping and vaccine scams.

The Federal Trade Commission said total fraud losses in 2020 were $3.3 billion, up from $1.9 billion the previous year.

Fighting fraud and scams was the objective of a Consumer Protection Virtual Forum hosted Friday by Congressman Gus Bilirakis (R-New Port Richey).

Experts from the FTC, as well as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Florida Division of Consumer Services, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Internal Revenue Service gave the public updated information on scams and how they can be prevented or reported.

There were 4.7 million reported cases of fraud in 2020, up from 3.2 million in 2019. Cases of identity theft more than doubled in 2020 to roughly 1.4 million.

With the increase in unemployment came a surge in cybercriminals stealing people’s personal information to file false claims. In 2020, the FTC received 498,000 reports about imposter scams, more than 394,000 reports about government benefits fraud, and 89,000 reports of tax identity theft.

The FTC also found that social media is a ripe breeding ground for people falling victim to scams. In just the first six months of 2020, scams originating on social media tripled, resulting in $117 million dollars in losses.

These scams often come by way of friend requests, direct messages, and advertisements. Scammers create fake profiles offering connection, friendship, or economic relief, just as a way to steal information and money.

Bilirakis urged big tech platforms to help their users stay protected.

“It's their responsibility, in my opinion, engaging big tech platforms to take a great role in protecting the public will be a focus of (the Consumer Protection and Commerce) Subcommittee this year,” said Bilirakis. “If consumers know what to look for, they will be better equipped to avoid scams.”

Another form of fraud seeing an increase are vaccine scams.

Since the situation with distribution of the vaccine changes each day, varying by state and city, fraudsters are exploiting the confusion by promising fake reservations, paid wait listings, or charging people to make an appointment for them.

To prevent this from happening, people should contact trusted sources and talk to their healthcare provider or pharmacist to learn when and how to get the vaccine. In addition, people shouldn’t pay for the vaccine and ignore sale ads.

Lastly, ignore any call, text, or email offering the vaccine -- no legitimate provider would ask for a Social Security number, bank account number, or credit card number over the phone.

Panelists from the forum had other suggestions to protect yourself from scams:

  • Seek information from trusted sources
  • Never respond to solicitations
  • Pay with credit card if you can, especially online
  • Know your rights when dealing with debt
  • Purchase PPE from a reputable seller
  • Do your research
  • Never reply to texts or calls asking for information
  • Never provide anyone your Social Security number
  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is

In efforts to locate and combat scammers, particularly those who use robocalls, Congress passed the TRACED Act in 2019.

“This bill gives the FCC the tools it requested to go after the people who are breaking the law and using robocalls to swindle vulnerable Americans,” said Bilirakis, who acknowledged that people are still being inundated with the annoying calls.

“The entire law is still in the process of being fully implemented,” he added. “That's how we do things unfortunately in Congress, it's too slow, which isn't expected to be fully implemented till this summer, but we'll stay on that.”

Although the act is not yet fully functional, some portions have already proven helpful. In 2020, the FCC reported a 30% decrease in spam calls, with billions being blocked.

To find more information on scams and fraud associated with the pandemic, visit https://www.ftc.gov/coronavirus

Leali Shalabi is a WUSF/ USF Zimmerman School digital news intern for the spring of 2021.
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