Personal Finance

Watch out for these pandemic and holiday scams

The coronavirus isn’t the only thing that’s spreading fast. So are scams related to the pandemic itself.

The big reason: Most Americans have been spending more time at home this year, and more time shopping online. This helps explain why delivery scam calls have exploded this year, according to an analysis of 182,185 spam call complaints by

“We first saw this scam explode last Christmas season, and with lockdowns, scammers found it to be a perfect playbook during the pandemic,” says data analyst Evan Schlossman.

BeenVerified’s analysis claims that nearly one in 10 of all reports received from January through mid-October were related to phony text or email messages that appeared to be—but weren’t—from delivery firms like FedEx

 and the U.S. Postal Service, among others.

Says Beenverified: “That ‘USPS’ (web address) could be a trap—delivery scams often invite you to click a link in order to claim a parcel and end up asking you for a credit card number. It offers this good advice: “If you need information about a package or a payment, call the delivery company or government agency yourself. Never give an incoming caller identifying details about yourself—even the last four digits of your Social Security number.”

BeenVerified’s data dovetails with what the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a U.S. government watchdog group, has been seeing.

The FTC says it has gotten more than a quarter-million consumer complaints about COVID-related scams and scams concerning federal stimulus help this year. Two-thirds of the complaints involve fraud or identity theft, and victims report losing nearly $195 million, with a median loss of $324. Median means half lost more than that and half lost less.

“People are doing more online shopping than ever before, because they’re not comfortable going out to the store,” says Colleen Tressler, a FTC consumer education specialist.

One scam that has been popular this year has been to take advantage of items that have been In short supply at various times: Toilet paper, Clorox, Lysol and other cleaning materials. Tressler says crooks will claim to have plenty in stock—all you have to do is enter your credit card or—even worse—debit card info.

Debit cards are more dangerous, because once a robber has access to it, you can lose everything in your account. If you’re victimized using a credit card, the most you can lose, because of consumer protection laws is $50.

“With a credit card, you have more protection,” Tressler says.

Perhaps you’ve heard this advice before, but Tressler says it’s always worth repeating: “If you get a text or an email with a link to something, that’s a red flag,” she warns. “Don’t open attachments.” That’s a good way for thieves to get into your computer and learn your passwords, birth date, Social Security number and other sensitive information.

“Trust your gut,” Tressler adds.

Crooks are so slick these days that they can create websites that look like the real thing. “But you might not know what to look for,” Tressler warns. Before entering into any online transaction, make sure the site is legitimate. There are two ways to do this. First, look for the https:// in front of a website. Example: And to the left of that, look for the little padlock icon.

Other scams unique to 2020 involve federal stimulus money. Back in March, Congress passed and President Trump signed the CARES Act, which authorized $1,200 checks for tens of millions of individuals and $2,400 for couples, plus $500 per child. There has been talk of a second round of stimulus, including unemployment benefits, food stamps, and more. Scammers have taken full advantage of all this by reaching out to citizens claiming to be a federal or state agency and asking for sensitive info or “processing fees” to expedite assistance.

You need to know that federal and state government agencies do not call, text or send emails to citizens asking for such information. If anyone claiming to be from such an agency asks for it, do not engage. Hang up the phone, Delete the email or text.

Meantime, more traditional scams are alive and well. BeenVerified says robbers pretending to be from the Social Security administration stole about $19 million a year from citizens in 2019; the median individual loss was $1,000. Scams typically involve phone calls, texts or emails warning that your benefits could be cut unless you click on a link, call a phone number that charges you by the minute, or again, send a “processing fee.” Again, no government agency will ever ask you to do anything like this. If you have any concerns about this, call the Social Security Administration on this number: 1 (800) 772-1213 or go to this—and only this—website:

One of the worst rip-off schemes of all are those that attempt to take advantage of your goodwill, especially during the holidays.

“Charity fraud is always a big one this time of year,” the FTC’s Tressler says. She advises you to check out charities on your own, by visiting their websites—again, look for the security information mentioned above so you know it’s a real site. “It’s really important if you suspect a scam, to let us know. You can report problems to the FTC here. This information is then shared with some 3,000 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies nationwide.

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