COVID-19 has created unprecedented interruptions -- both economic and personal -- for people around the world. In the United States, the wide variety of state-government responses and timelines for reopening have created an atmosphere that is ripe for abuse by unscrupulous people. In response, both the US Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission have released guidelines designed to protect citizens from a variety of dishonest and criminal practices.
One of the most important common denominators for all of the fraud alerts is outreach via phone, mail, email, or social media. It is vital that you seek out information from reliable, authoritative sources rather than responding to unsolicited requests for information. In addition, never give out personal or financial information, including Social Security numbers, identification numbers, bank account information, or credit or debit card information.
Whether you are a real estate agent looking for ways to protect yourself, your clients, and your SOI (sphere of influence) or you are a landlord looking to protect yourself and your tenants, it is a good idea to review these recommendations. This will help you stay on the alert for bad actors seeking to take advantage of the current atmosphere of fear and confusion.
1. Identity Theft
One of the primary ways that people gain access to personal information is through smartphones. At the same time, contact tracing is an important part of identifying and tracking the spread of COVID-19. Now, scammers posing as contact tracers are using smartphone apps and sending text messages in order to gain access to phones -- and personal identifying information -- in order to facilitate identity theft.
2. Medical Fraud
As one might imagine, there are a variety of medical-related scams at work during this global pandemic. As scientists and researchers around the world race for a cure, vaccine, or treatment for COVID-19, scammers are already selling fake medical equipment and treatments -- or pretending to do so.
- Fraudsters are selling products to treat or prevent COVID-19, including fake vaccinations and home testing kits. Advertisements online for home test kits are generally not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and have no clinical evidence of efficacy. These products may be offered through emails, phone calls, or even in-person sales representatives.
- The Justice Department has received reports of robocalls for the sale of respiratory masks or other medical devices to both individuals and entities, including government agencies. In many cases, no devices were ever received, while in others counterfeit, tampered or otherwise fraudulent masks, gloves, and surgical gowns.
- Scammers are sending emails and making calls asking for Medicare information in exchange for “free” COVID-19 testing or healthcare supplies. They then use this information to submit fraudulent medical claims for services that are unrelated or “fictitious.”
3. Financial Fraud
Of course, financial fraud is part and parcel of the extreme economic uncertainty we have seen in the post-COVID world. Especially at risk are older people and those who are suffering from job loss and economic uncertainty.
- The Justice Department has reported an increase in fraud schemes across an array of businesses and platforms, including cryptocurrency, work from home scams, non-existent medical treatments, and investment scams. In addition, blackmail attempts have been reported.
- Because government relief efforts were tied to the filing of federal tax returns, there has been an uptick in IRS-related fraud. These include phone calls and emails from supposed IRS or Treasury Department employees, looking for information and threatening adverse consequences.
- Scammers are taking advantage of the many charitable efforts set up to help respond to COVID-related job losses and medical needs. Law enforcement authorities are reporting increased social media, email, and telephone scams seeking donations for non-existent charities. They then ask for your financial information in order to obtain your “donation” or ask you to click on a link or download a file. This can then insert malware on your computer to steal additional personal and financial information for more aggressive forms of fraud.
4. Government Giveaway Fraud
The many government stimulus programs designed to help individuals and businesses during the pandemic has also given rise to unprecedented levels of fraud and theft. If you have not yet applied for or received your stimulus payment, check directly with the government agency involved. Don’t wait for outreach from a third party.
- Scammers are calling and posing as government officials or facilitators for CARES Act stimulus payments. They may also use mail, email, or text messaging to impersonate a government official or entity. They may either ask for a fee in order to facilitate your payment or threaten adverse consequences for non-communication.
- In addition, for those who have already received stimulus payments, fraudulent schemes may include a report of overpayment of stimulus funds, with a demand for a refund of the difference. This may include threats of fines, forfeit, or arrest. Payments may be requested via money order or gift cards.
- Other fraud perpetrators use smartphone apps or websites to request banking information for direct deposit of stimulus payments.
- If you are involved in an ongoing financial transaction, watch out for last-minute emails that appear to come from a trusted source and change the details associated with deposits, wire transfers, or other transactions.
Now more than ever, financial and document security is a prime consideration for everyone. If you are a rental agent or landlord, the document and information gathering required for a rental background check and financial screening requires a higher level of care and caution. Rentspree offers a secure online process designed to give added peace of mind to you and to your potential tenants.