Financial Planning

Tips on Protecting Yourself From Coronavirus Ne’er-Do-Wells

Here are some tips on protecting yourself from bad actors exploiting COVID-19 fears.

As the world battles COVID-19, investors must contend with another threat: bad actors using the pandemic to prey upon people’s emotions. Many of these schemes rely on fear, though some try to stir other feelings—like greed. Headlines in the US and overseas are already noting an uptick in COVID-19-related scams, and the number, unfortunately, will likely rise from here. Here is a roundup of some coronavirus-related scams and tips on how to protect yourself.

Several varieties of scams have caught US regulators’ attention. Some exploit disease fears specifically, like bogus testing kits, cleaning services or even treatments. Others are taking advantage of heightened demand for masks, hand sanitizer and other personal protection products by taking orders and not delivering the goods. Bad actors are also using official-sounding communications to frighten people into taking action, including voicemails warning of exposure to COVID-19 and email phishing scams that appear to be from reputable sources like the WHO or CDC. Moreover, with Treasury now sending out stimulus checks, crooks are finagling their way into that space, with phishing attempts claiming you must sign up or pay a fee to receive your payment. (More on this below.)  

On the investment side, the SEC has warned of coronavirus-related “pump and dump” schemes. The way it works: A promotor claims a company—usually a tiny microcap whose stock doesn’t trade much—is on the verge of a COVID-19 cure nobody else knows about, so now is the time to buy. As investors bid up the price based on these often-false claims, the perpetrators sell their shares. After reality emerges and the hype dies, the stock price falls—leaving those who bought in earnest with losses. Along with these scams, investors must also fend off offers of “safe” investment strategies or products that prey on frayed nerves due to recent volatility and the bear market.

COVID-19 scams aren’t just an American phenomenon. Across the pond, UK regulators are reporting similar nefarious activity. These, too, run the gamut. Emails asking you to click a bad link to access your tax refund from the government and NHS. Requests for cash to fund school meal programs. Text messages of a £250 “goodwill payment” from HMRC or a looming fine for disobeying the lockdown. Offers for (fake) supermarket vouchers. And one particularly onerous scam: a COVID-19 tracker for your phone. But instead of providing updates or advice, the app installs ransomware on your mobile device, freezing it and forcing you to pay a fee to the scammers to unlock it.

Given the sheer amount of information circulating about a fluid situation, sifting fact from fiction can be challenging. As it pertains to COVID-19, though, keep in mind there is no vaccine right now. A genuine one will likely take months to develop, test and then roll out. Heavy mainstream media scrutiny will follow that process. Anything that purports to cure or treat the virus right now—whether as a health care remedy or investment opportunity—should be regarded skeptically.

Another area rife with confusion: how to receive your stimulus check courtesy of Congress’s CARES Act. The vast majority of those eligible to receive an Economic Impact Payment do not need to take any additional action.[i] If you filed a tax return for 2019 or 2018, you will receive the payment via direct deposit or mail. If you typically don’t file a tax return but receive Social Security, disability (SSDI), survivor benefits, Supplementary Security Income (SSI) or Railroad Retirement benefits, you will automatically receive your payment just as you would normally receive your federal benefits. The IRS will also mail a letter within 15 days after the payment is paid, and you can even check the status of your payment at the IRS’s website. Importantly, the IRS will not call, email or text you about your payment.

As for other coronavirus-related offers, ask yourself some basic due diligence questions before acting. Is the communication…

  • Unexpected?
  • Asking you to take immediate action?
  • Requesting sensitive information (e.g., personal or banking information)?
  • Asking for money?
  • Sounding too good to be true?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should be extremely skeptical of the offer and tread carefully.

Knowing how official channels will and won’t contact you can help, too. As a basic rule of thumb, neither the IRS nor the HMRC will email or text you regarding matters like tax refunds or rebates. If you have doubts about a communication’s authenticity, be safe, don’t respond and confirm directly with the tax authority. Below are some resources for reference. Healthy skepticism and good information can help protect you from bad actors’ tactics.

US Resources:

UK Resources:

[i] In the event you are a non-filer and an eligible US citizen or permanent resident, you may still be eligible to receive a payment. See the IRS’s website for more.

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*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.