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Scammers are using the coronavirus pandemic to their advantage

'That’s probably the most powerful weapon is educating the public,' Lt. Andrews said.

MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. — Scammers are using COVID-19 to their advantage, law enforcement officials say.

“Every day there is someone unfortunately falling victim to a scam,” Lt. Robert Andrews said.

Scams are not a new thing, but they are constantly morphing.

“The scams, they are really never truly different but what they do is they kind of mold it to what’s going on,” Lt. Andrews said.

Lt. Andrews is the head of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Crime Prevention Unit. He says scams are designed to prey upon two of our emotions -- fear and greed.

“The greed with investment, or at the fear with the COVID cure,” Andrews said. “They are trying to get you scared so you are willing to jump on it and not really rationally think about it.”

Many of the scams out there are aimed at stealing money or personal information for malicious purposes. There’s three ways scammer can reach you. Through email, a phone call, or social media.

When it comes to email addresses, they will be very similar to legitimate organizations. Often times scammers will steal logos or banners to add an element of authentication. But Lt. Andrews says it’s the details you need to look out for.

“A lot of it is just be aware,” Lt. Andrews said. “If you get an email or text look at the grammar,” Andrews said. “If the grammar is really off that’s a good indicator that’s a scam.”

And Andrews says, whatever you do never click on a link that is sent to you from an unfamiliar contact.

“Especially if it’s from like a bank one because they are really good at emails making it look legitimate,” Andrews said.

He says an attached link will usually have some sort of spyware to steal the login information from your bank account.

“Close out the email, go to your actual bank's website and then login,” Andrews said.

When it comes to phone calls, scammers use fictitious numbers to hide their true location, so you are more inclined to answer a familiar number.  They will likely identify themselves as being part of a legitimate organization from the start. Lt. Andrews says the first red flag is if the caller has a heavy accent.

“Listen to the accent,” Andrews said. “We see a lot of these coming out of the far East or Eastern Europe, so if you notice a little bit of a strange accent that is a first red flag.”

Andrews says the biggest advice he has for phone call scams is just don’t answer.

“Don’t answer the phone call from people you don’t know,” Andrews said. “I can’t tell you how many times people answer that phone call. Once they get you on that line it’s where the sales pitches start.”

Social Media is another common source for scammers. They’ll start enticing people with lofty rewards. They’ll try to use legitimate business logos and information to get you to interact.

Some of the biggest scams Lt. Andrews is seeing involve unemployment. Which is something many people are dealing with in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

“You’ll get a phone call from someone pretending to be from Amazon with an employment opportunity,” Andrews said. “They either try to get you to pay a fee, like a headhunter fee, or they’ll try to get your personal information and nothing ever comes of it. It’s just a phishing opportunity to them.”

Here are some of the most common coronavirus scams Lt. Andrews is seeing:

  • Antibody Immunity – Scammers will try to sell you the blood and saliva from COVID-19 victims in the hopes of giving you immunity.  Andrews says such treatments are experimental and will only be done by a doctor.
  • Expedited Stimulus Checks – “Where there’s money, there will be a scammer looking to try to get it,” Andrews said. This small bonus from the government was meant to help people.  There is currently no way to expedite your stimulus checks.  Plus, Andrews says it’s important to remember, “the IRS doesn’t call you unless you call them first.”
  • Fake COVID-19 Cures – While many treatments are being tested, there are no medically proved treatments yet for COVID-19.  “Unless medical treatment comes from a doctor, then don’t take the bait,” Andrews said.
  • Tech Support Scam – “This one has been around for a while but is regaining traction during these times,” Andrews said. With fewer workers doing house visits, scammers are relying on tricking unsuspecting people with fake websites. One man reported a fake website to the BBB Scam Tracker after trying to purchase Lysol in bulk to help his business during the pandemic.
  • COVID-19 Tests – Testing has certainly improved but there are still issues with access. “Scammers will offer to send you a self-administered test,” Andrews said. This is a trick. All tests would be ordered by a physician. 
  • No-Risk Investment – “With the stock market buckling of late, scammers will try to entice you into getting into the market,” Andrews said. “All investments into the market bear risks and there is no guarantee on your money.”
  • Fake Boss or Co-workers – With remote working becoming the new norm, scammers are enticed to taking over email accounts. “They rely on the inability to physically see each other and verify a message or email asking for payment to be made to a vendor,” Andrews said. “Always confirm the details over the phone before making payment.”
  • Phony Small Business Loans – The Payroll Protection Program (PPP) was rolled out to help keep businesses afloat and still be able to pay workers that would otherwise be furloughed. Scammers will send emails that direct you to a fake website asking for a “down payment” in order to get funds. Andrews says don’t fall for it. “Small business loans are only granted through SBA.gov,” Andrews said.
  • Donation scam – Many organizations are struggling to try to meet needs and help those in need. Scammers will try to get you to donate to a fake charity that they setup or stole the logos from a legitimate one. “Always check out a charities rating before donating,” Andrews said.

If you do fall victim to a scam you should report it immediately.

“Especially if there was a loss of your personal information, you are going to want to freeze your credit that way no one can open up a credit line with your Social Security number or name very easily,” Andrews said.

You can report a scam either to your local sheriff’s office or online with the Better Business Bureau Scam Tracker website.

If you want to learn more about common scams and more warning signs to help you pick a part a scam, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office is holding a virtual webinar on Friday, Sept. 4 at 1 p.m.

“Just being able to educate people so when they get that phone call, email, a text they immediately pick up on it, hang up the phone or just delete that email,” Andrews said. “That’s probably the most powerful weapon is educating the public.”

To tune into the webinar, you must have access to Zoom and register to obtain a Zoom link. If you are interested in attending, call MCSO Crime Prevention Unit at (941)747-3011 Ext. 2500 to reserve your spot. Space is limited.

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