Criminals never take a furlough. With much of the country experiencing financial insecurity from the toll COVID-19 has taken on the economy, it’s fertile ground for fraudsters. They’re texting, emailing or calling you and some of their scams are sophisticated enough that it can be hard to tell fact from fiction.
Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself from getting swindled.
Your Bank Is Not Going to Text You
One timely scheme going around involves getting a text message on your phone suggesting that banks are closing and if you need a loan to “click here.”
“Reputable banks and loan companies are not going to text you offering services that require you to respond with your personal information,” says Bruce McClary, spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a nonprofit organization.
Deceptive texts like these are known as smishing, which is the term for when a scammer uses SMS, or text messages, as a phishing technique to lure you into giving out personal information or clicking on malware that can steal your passwords, credit card number or other valuable information.
Between January 1, 2020 and April 1, 2020, the Federal Trade Commission has received 788 complaints from consumers who were on the receiving end of a COVID-19-related smishing scam and a reported $19,000 lost as a result of being duped by phony text messages.
Keep your bank information safe and delete any text messages or emails that claim to be from your financial institution.
There Are No 0% Interest Mortgage Loans
There was a lot of buzz around the Federal Reserve’s emergency interest rate cuts in mid-March 2020, the second of which took the federal funds benchmark rate to record-breaking near-zero. But that doesn’t mean you should rush to refinance to a 0% interest mortgage because, in spite of that rate cut, that magical mortgage simply doesn’t exist.
That hasn’t deterred scammers from flooding inboxes with advertisements or links suggesting you can, in fact, lower your mortgage interest rate to zero. As with most things, if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is.
Here’s why: When the federal funds rate decreases, it becomes cheaper for banks to borrow from other banks. Those savings are typically passed on to consumers in the form of lower interest rates on things like lines of credit and auto loans. But mortgage rates aren’t solely based on the Fed’s rate of interest, and instead are also affected by the buying and selling of government securities.
The mortgage rate you’ll qualify for is based on a number of personal factors including the size of the loan, the length of time you’re seeking to pay it back, your credit score and how big of a down payment you plan on making. In other words, mortgage rates don’t move in lockstep with those of the Federal Reserve and there’s still no such thing as a 0% interest mortgage, no matter what a scammer’s message to you might say.
Even if It’s From Your Lender, Don’t “Click Here”
Criminals have become increasingly sophisticated when it comes to mirroring legitimate sites. One might send you an email complete with accurate company logos, typeface and other details that can make it look like a legitimate message from your bank, a lender or even the government.
But before you follow any instructions to click on a link within the message, take a closer look at the details. “In many of these cases all (scammers) want to do is have you click on the link and they can download spyware or malware,” says Michael Bruemmer, vice president of Data Breach Resolution and Consumer Protection for credit reporting agency Experian.
Tell-tale signs of a fake email message include misspelled words and/or blurry images. See what email address and URL the message is coming from. If it’s a name that doesn’t match with the company it purports to be, that’s a dead giveaway you should hit delete immediately. If you still aren’t sure, contact your financial institution using the number on your billing statement or the back of your credit card and ask them to confirm the information you were sent.
That Phone Call May Not Be Who You Think it Is
Scammers can spoof your number and make it look like someone local is calling you or even copy a number from a company you know and trust. Phone numbers that look familiar may not accurately reveal who is actually on the other line.
If you aren’t expecting a call from a government agency or one of your lenders, don’t answer. Although you might be waiting on information about your stimulus relief or a loan you’ve applied for, scammers are hoping that you will pick up the phone. “There are offers that are reaching people in a desperate situation that seem very tempting. When they’re in a desperate situation, they don’t have time to research the offer, says McClary.
According to the IRS’s website about the CARES Act stimulus payments, there’s no action required on your part to receive a stimulus check. If someone is calling asking you for your information and says it’s related to your check, hang up immediately.
Those Online Masks and Miracle Cures Are Likely a Sham
The Internet is flooded with ads falsely claiming they have the products no one else can get their hands on. The Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker counts fake masks and phony cures as one of the top six scams to crop up during the pandemic.
Some of these pseudo-sellers are offering fakes of real products, others just take your money and never deliver the goods.
One easy way to tell if your respirator mask is flim-flam or bona fide is to check the markings. The “N” in N95 stands for NIOSH, which is the acronym for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Certified N95 masks will show the NIOSH name or logo, the test and certification approval number, and the manufacturer’s name or logo.
Be aware that there are currently no U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccines or drugs to prevent or cure coronavirus. Although there are various drugs that are being tested as promising treatments to some suffering from the effects of COVID-19. However, these treatments are not available for purchase online.