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Stimulus check recipients a target for scams, officials warn

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UNITED STATES (CBS) — Criminals are targeting the federal stimulus payments now being distributed to tens of millions of cash-strapped Americans. Word that the money would soon land in bank accounts and mailboxes across the country has led to a surge of scam phone calls, text messages or emails, with some fraudsters falsely claiming that people had to provide personal information to collect the government money.

The FBI is now seeing about 3,000 to 4,000 complaints a day through its internet portal, up from about 1,000 complaints pre-coronavirus, the agency’s deputy assistant director in the cyber division, Tonya Ugoretz, said at an @AspenInstitute virtual event. As many as 150 million households are eligible for the full or partial stimulus checks, estimates the Tax Policy Center.

In one coronavirus con making the rounds, people are sent a message or see a social media post about an “economic impact check.” Clicking a link takes them to what looks like an official website asking for personal information, including banking details, with instructions that the step is “necessary” to process their check, according to the Better Business Bureau.

Another scheme involves a Facebook post about a special grant to help seniors pay medical bills. The link leads to a website claiming to be a government agency called the “U.S. Emergency Grants Federation,” which requests a person’s Social Security number to verify their eligibility.

Meanwhile, some scammers claim people can get extra federal money or get their funds immediately after providing personal details and paying a small “processing fee.”

“In addition to taking your money, these sites also can download malware to your device and use your information for identity theft,” the Better Business Bureau recently warned.

Scams sought to take advantage of the pandemic even before the government checks were circulated, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The agency has received more than 18,000 reports related to COVID-19, with reported losses this year topping $13 million. A related warning comes from law enforcement officials and the U.S. Postal Service.

“As this deadly virus continues to impact every part of our lives, scammers are looking to take advantage of all the chaos,” Kareem Carter, an IRS special agent overseeing criminal investigations stated last week in a joint release with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Northern California. “They will prey on our hopes and fears to steal your money, your personal information, or both.”

Here are some tips from experts on spotting and avoiding scams related to the stimulus checks:

  • The IRS will deposit your check into the direct-deposit account you previously provided on your tax return or send a paper check.
  • The IRS won’t call and ask you to verify payment details. Never give out your bank account, debit account or PayPal account information – even if someone claims it’s necessary to get your check.
  • If you get a suspicious call, don’t engage with scammers or thieves, even if you want to tell them that you know it’s a scam. Just hang up.
  • Delete texts or emails claiming that you can get your money faster by sending personal information or clicking on links. Never click on any unfamiliar links.
  • Reports are also swirling about bogus checks. If you receive a “check” in the mail now, it’s a fraud-it will take the Treasury a few more weeks to mail those out. If you receive a “check” for an odd amount (especially one with cents) or a check that requires that you verify it online or by calling a number, it’s a fraud.
  • Government agencies do not typically communicate through text messages.
  • Ignore instructions to text “STOP” or “NO” to prevent future texts. This is a common ploy by scammers to confirm they have a real, active phone number.
  • If you think your text message is real, be sure it’s directing you to a web address like “agency.gov” or “agency.ca,” not “agency.otherwebsite.com.”
  • Check for look-alikes. Be sure to do your research on search engines to see if a government agency or organization actually exists and review its full name and official logo image. Find contact info on your own and call them to be sure the person you’ve heard from is legitimate.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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