While millions of New Jersey residents worry about contracting COVID-19, scammers have developed new schemes to take advantage of the situation, often targeting older residents in an attempt to make a buck during a time of crisis.
The latest scams include ones that prey on those seeking coronavirus-related assistance, including tricking computer users into clicking on fake links that could steal their personal information and give criminals access to their financial accounts, according to the state Division of Consumer Affairs in the Office of the Attorney General.
“Scammers are following news headlines to craft official-looking communications to convince consumers to grant them access to personal information, putting them at risk for identity theft and financial exploitation,” said Paul R. Rodríguez, acting director of the division, in a statement. “We are asking residents to rely only on information from trusted sources, and refrain from opening attachments or click on links from unknown sources.”
Another scam involves the stimulus check or direct deposit that many residents will receive from the federal government as a result of the current emergency. These payments are to come from the Internal Revenue Service without residents having to take any action. State officials are warning New Jerseyans that anyone who calls and asks for a Social Security number, bank account or credit card to enable their receipt of government assistance is a scammer.
State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s office is pursuing other crimes related to the pandemic. The state’s chief law enforcement official announced Wednesday that the consumer affairs division has issued 514 cease-and-desist letters and 89 subpoenas to businesses that consumers have reported for price gouging or other consumer protection violations.
Who they’re targeting
Such price gouging impacts residents of all ages. Scams may as well, but older residents are often at greater risk of falling prey to these. Particularly during the current health crisis, when seniors who have a greater chance of getting seriously ill from the virus are isolated and separated from their families, they may be more susceptible to falling for a financial scheme.
“There are a number of factors,” said Charles Clarkson, project director of the Senior Medicare Patrol of New Jersey, in explaining why seniors are targets of scams. “They’re isolated. They might be vulnerable: either they’re frail or might have dementia. Also, seniors have checking accounts and they have savings, so they’re a targeted group.”
The Senior Medicare Patrol helps Medicare beneficiaries, their families and caregivers to detect, report and prevent health care fraud, error, and abuse. Clarkson said the patrol recommends that the elderly should have answering machines or a caller ID service so they can screen phone calls and avoid answering the phone when they do not recognize the number. It also advises seniors to ignore calls or emails that claim to be government-related, despite looking like official correspondence.
“They’re using the same tricks — telephone calls, emails, texts. We’ve even heard of people saying they’re from the CDC and are traveling door to door … so we have to tell seniors to be really careful,” Clarkson said. “The same precautions should happen, but now there’s a virus which makes people more worried and therefore may do things they should not be doing because they’re scared.”
Melissa Chalker, executive director of the New Jersey Foundation for Aging, said that the increased use of technology during the pandemic may present challenges for seniors when differentiating between legitimate and fraudulent information.
Pitfalls of social media
“It’s also unfortunate for those older adults who are not computer or tech savvy,” Chalker said. “This is particularly a problem for phishing and other internet tactics where they might not look as closely as a young person would at an email address or notice misspellings in a website link and might be prone to click on something they shouldn’t.”
Chalker also said that, with more older adults using social media and joining nostalgia groups — where people post answers to questions about their personal life and childhood memories — they should be aware that scammers often search for these, since they can contain the sort of information asked in online security questions.
She encourages seniors to be skeptical and cautious while using the internet, adding that older adults should not give out personal information without verifying who or what the information is for.
“There’s so much out there of people promoting technology as a way to stay connected and engaged with your family members in this time, so they might get something that looks like a legitimate link or they might be using their computer more than they usually do because they’re trying to stay connected, so they might fall victim to pop-up ads and other schemes that people use on the internet,” Chalker said.
Some of their tactics
According to state law enforcement officials, current scams include:
- Fake mandatory COVID-19 test scams: Individuals posing as employees of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or another government department may send a text message or email instructing recipients to click on a link in order to complete a mandatory online test or registration to get testing. This scam is designed to steal personal, financial and/or medical information;
- Grandparent/family scams: These scams have been around for a while, but can take a new twist during the current health crisis. They involve someone calling or sending a message from an unknown number or email address claiming to be a relative or friend sick with COVID-19 and desperate for money, typically via wire transfer or gift card. Instead of giving the money, the recipient of the call should contact the friend or relative directly and ask if they need help;
- Phony charities and crowdfunding: While legitimate charities have been created to help those impacted by COVID-19, so have scams. People should be sure to research where a charitable donation is going and visit the division’s website for more information about a charity’s status. It would also be wise to research an appeal on a crowdfunding site, including reading the terms and conditions and the comments, before donating.
- Travel insurance scams: Many travel insurance policies do not cover pandemics, although some legitimate travel insurance companies have extended coverage to their policyholders for cancellations related to COVID-19. If someone pitches new travel insurance that specifically covers COVID-19-related problems, it may be a scam. For more information about the potential for a refund, read the division’s COVID-19 consumer guidance.
Last month, Grewal and U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito announced the creation of a federal-state COVID-19 Fraud Task Force to investigate and prosecute those who exploit the COVID-19 pandemic through fraud. Consumers who believe that they have been victimized by a COVID-related fraud can call the National Center for Disaster Fraud’s National Hotline at (866) 720-5721.