Spokane Journal of Business

COVID-19 scams emerge as serious concern in INW

Business owners can take steps to avoid attacks

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During this unprecedented time in our history, the coronavirus pandemic has cast a heavy cloud of uncertainty over everyone’s heads. Many businesses are being forced to shut down or operate on a work-from-home basis, and it has left much of our local Spokane economy in a state of financial limbo. 

Unfortunately, in times like these, it has caused opportunistic scammers to prey even more heavily on people’s vulnerabilities and fears.

Scammers are doing everything they can to capitalize on people’s uncertainty. Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak several months ago, the Federal Communications Commission and FBI have received thousands of reports of COVID-19-specific scams. Those scams range everywhere from miracle cures to fraudsters posing as government officials from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other criminals are offering free home testing kits, virus-related loan assistance, or selling health insurance.

I personally got called three times from a number claiming to be Avista Utilities. They claimed that I had not paid my bill and my utilities would be shut down in 30 minutes if I did not call a number and make a payment. I knew that my bill was current, but it made me wonder how many Spokanites fell victim to that crime.

A scam alert on Avista’s website reads: “Scammers are targeting Avista customers with threats of disconnection and demands for payment. Do not fall for this scam.”

As a small employer, I have also had the Washington State Employment Security Department asking me for information for an unemployment claim for a person who never worked for my business. I was able to track down the man, whose Social Security Number was on the statement I received and let him know that his identity had been compromised.

Even here in Spokane, the pandemic offers a perfect storm for these criminals to steal money or sensitive personal information, or both.

According to the FCC, here are some other examples of common COVID-19 scams:

•Bogus cures and phony remedies such as teas, essential oils, cannabinol, colloidal silver, and intravenous vitamin-C therapies.

•Robocalls from crooks impersonating banks and financial lenders.

•Phishing scam emails that appear to be from real businesses or government agencies. Often if you click on a link or download an attached file, you could also be importing onto your computer a malware program that steals your personal information, passwords, and more.

•Charitable appeals to help the victims of the virus, which are not legitimate.

•Calls from the “Treasury Department” to verify your bank account details in order to release your government-issued stimulus check.

The best way to protect yourself at a time like this? Keep yourself up to date on the latest scare tactics. Because knowing how to spot a scam often isn’t enough to protect yourself from one – especially now that scams are becoming increasingly more sophisticated.

Read on for tips to protect yourself from becoming a victim.

Never share your personal details with a site or person that you don’t know or trust. Most importantly, keep your credit card, Social Security, and banking details to yourself. 

Never agree to wire money. Once a wire transfer has been made, there is no way to retrieve your money or even contest it in instances of fraud. Instead, use reliable and secure payment services, such as your credit card, PayPal, or Google Wallet.

Protect your computer. The Federal Trade Commission recommends consumers practice online security by backing up their personal data and using two-factor authentication whenever possible to make it harder for scammers to gain access to accounts. Two-factor authentication adds a layer of security to the user verification process. Instead of simply asking for your username and password, it may request for fingerprint or facial recognition, or ask you to enter a code sent to your mobile number. This extra layer of security makes it harder for fraudsters to hack into your account.

Avoid clicking links from unknown sources and use extreme caution in online communication. For emails, verify who the sender is – criminals will sometimes change just one letter in an email address to make it look like one you know. Be wary of attachments or links; hover your mouse over a link before clicking to see where it’s sending you.

Beware of fundraising and charity calls. Calls or emails seeking money for coronavirus victims or disease research should be viewed with caution, especially if they pressure you to act fast and request payment by prepaid debit cards or gift cards. Always check on a charity to determine its validity.

Freeze your credit. Credit freezes can help give you additional peace of mind if you believe your personal information has been compromised. 

Use a phone answering system. If you get a call from a phone number you don’t know, let the caller leave a message instead of being lured into a conversation you are not prepared for. If you keep getting unwanted telemarketing calls from solicitors, block that number from your phone. You can also register your phone numbers on the Do Not Call list registry.

As of this writing, there is no Food and Drug Administration-approved medicine that has been proven to protect, fight, or prevent COVID-19. There is also no FDA-approved vaccination or home testing kit for the virus. Be suspicious if you come across someone trying to sell you a “miracle cure” or “secret investment opportunity.” 

In the coming weeks, there are sure to be even more sophisticated COVID-19-related scams. While on the surface, the scams all seem to be different, they are all essentially trying to steal your personal information or money – or both. Be vigilant.

For more information on COVID-19 scams, visit the dedicated COVID-19 consumer warnings and safety tips page from the FCC at www.fcc.gov/covid-scams.

Sarah Carlson
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Sarah Carlson is the owner and founder of Fulcrum Financial Group, of Spokane. She can be reached at 509.747.2075.

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