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Fraud Watch: Beware con artists who exploit your viral anxiety

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The average American is taking coronavirus seriously; the average scammer is taking coronavirus as an unprecedented opportunity.

Be prepared for a flood of email messages and phone calls that have the express purpose of separating you from your money. Con artists work to get you "under the ether," a heightened state of anxiety, and the current crisis creates a perfect storm.

Scammers use a variety of tactics to achieve anxiety: Impersonating officials to convey credibility, exploiting scarcity or perceived scarcity to boost demand, collecting personal data in profiling intended victims, manipulating social consensus to build demand, and playing upon the general fear or uncertainty spread by the contagion.

Here is my "short list" of the scams as noted by the FBI, Federal Trade Commission and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Supply scams: Creating "pop-up" businesses, websites, and social media accounts selling discounted medical supplies. Criminals pocket the cash and the supplies are never delivered.

Cure or treatment scams: Promoting vaccines, prescription and over-the-counter products for treatment or as a cure. At present, there are no such products available.

Impersonator scams: Gathering information including Social Security numbers, Medicare and health insurance information. Scammers claim to be officials with the CDC or the Department of Health and Human Services or a state agency. People fall victim by complying with the criminal's request. The reality, the CDC, WHO, HHS and other official agencies will not be calling you to collect information.

Scams directed against vulnerable populations: Attempting to exploit the fears or particular needs of segments of the population such as the elderly, diabetics, those with compromised immune systems, those with respiratory illnesses. This is a variation of the impersonator scams but tied to the profiling of individuals and the practice of "spear phishing," the direct targeting of individuals.

Provider scams: Pretending to be doctors or hospitals that have treated family members or friends and demanding payment. As with other examples, doctors and hospitals do no call or email to collect payment.

Download scams: Creating downloadable software to provide information about the coronavirus but uploads malware to your devices to steal your personal and financial information. Avoid any downloads and utilize the official or legitimate sources of information: cdc.gov, hhs.gov, npr.org, network or cable news outlets.

Investment scams: Promoting fraudulent investment in companies that manufacture products to prevent, detect or cure coronavirus. Before investing, research the company and the individual making the offer. This can be accomplished easily by contacting the Securities and Exchange Commission (sec.gov) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (finra.org) or your state financial securities department.

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Charity scams: Soliciting donations for individuals, organizations and locations impacted by coronavirus. As with donations to any charity or nonprofit, research before you donate. Easy to use websites for verification can be found online at charitynavigator.org, give.org or guidestar.org.

Government check scams: Representing government officials to collect personal information in facilitating checks from the government related to the coronavirus. The government will not call or email you to obtain personal information to facilitate payment. At this point, the details of any payment still need to be developed. As stated by the FTC, "Anyone who tells you they can get you the money now is a scammer."

The recommendations for staying safe from these scammers is similar to previous comments:

- Don't answer calls from unfamiliar numbers.

- Never share personal or financial information by email, text or over the phone.

- Don't allow yourself to be pressured over the phone or make immediate payments.

- Anyone who calls you and says they are with the government is most likely a scammer. Independently verify the person's identity.

- Report suspicious calls or emails to your state consumer protection agent, state attorney general or the Federal Trade Commission. If you see something, report it!

Expect the scam attempts to increase. More people are spending more time at home. Con artists don't need to wait until meal time or the evening to make contact. There has been a dramatic rise in scam reports in the past two weeks according to a number of law enforcement agencies. Be vigilant.

Questions, concerns or comments? Contact me at egreenblott@aarp.org.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and the Vermont coordinator of the AARP Fraud Watch Network. He hosts a feature CATV program, "Mr. Scammer," distributed by GNAT-TV in Sunderland, Vt., at gnat-tv.org.


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