Coronavirus contact tracing scam may steal stimulus payment

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With the rise in the number of coronavirus cases, the number of coronavirus-related scams is growing as well. We have already heard of many tricks that scammers are using to dupe Americans. Now scammers are using a new trick, called contact tracing scams, to trick users out of their money, including their coronavirus stimulus payment.

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Contact tracing scams: how do they work?

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a warning last week that fraudsters have developed a new scam involving the states’ contact-tracing initiatives. Lately, the government has ramped up its contact-tracing to limit the spread of the virus. Under the program, trained volunteers try to trace people who have come in contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19.

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For the program to work, the contact tracers need to get in touch with potentially impacted people. Also, states send text alerts to potentially impacted people. This is what scammers are using to mislead people.

Scammers are sending misleading SMS text messages. These messages can include malicious links, which if clicked, can download malware onto your device, or takes you to a phishing page that asks for your personal information. Once the contact tracing scam downloads malware onto your device, your personal and financial details are vulnerable, including the coronavirus stimulus payment that you would have gotten.

“But scammers, pretending to be contact tracers and taking advantage of how the process works, are also sending text messages. Theirs are spam text messages that ask you to click a link. Don’t take the bait," the FTC wrote in an alert last week.

The FTC even shared a sample SMS scam. "Someone who came in contact with you tested positive or has shown symptoms for Covid-19 & recommends you self-isolate/get tested," the fake message reads. The message then asks the user to tap the URL.

Greater damage than stealing coronavirus stimulus payment

Such contact tracing scams that have the potential to steal your coronavirus stimulus payment, can do even greater damage. Such scams may result in people losing trust in the contact tracing program, which is playing a crucial role in preventing the spread of the virus. As per an estimate by NPR last month, there were about 11,000 contact tracers across the U.S.  States are expected to deploy tens of thousands more.

Moreover, these scams could also complicate things for the apps that are being made using a technology backed by Apple and Google. Such apps will be capable of alerting users if they come in contact with a person that tested positive for COVID-19, or that such a person was near them.

Trust of the people is essential for the success of such apps. Apps based on such technology are expected to come out later this month. These apps will send a message, saying “Someone you were near has tested positive for Covid-19. Tap for more info.” Note that the message asks users to tap for more info, similar to the scam messages.

How to stay safe?

If a government hired tracer contacts you, they would never ask for your personal information. But, if the person contacting you asks for any such information, such as bank account or credit card number, Social Security number, etc. then it is a scam. Also, the FTC informs that public health officials may send a text message prior to a phone call, but they will never include any link.

To avoid such scams, the FTC also suggests filtering unwanted text messages using tools available on your device, or with call-blocking. The FTC also encourages the use of multi-factor authentication for online accounts, regular software updates and taking data backups.

Though these measures are helpful, the most effective precaution is to be careful about such messages, and delete them quickly.

Other coronavirus-related scams

Prior to these contact tracing scams, scammers used a highly sophisticated robotext scam involving the IRS (Internal Revenue Service). The message purportedly from the IRS asked users to confirm details regarding the stimulus payment through a link.

Once a user clicks the link, it takes them to a web page that looks the same as the IRS web page. The users are then prompted to enter their name, contact details and the Social Security number. After the user provides the details, they are then redirected to the real IRS website to make the scam look more real.

Another coronavirus-related scam is related to a pop-up for fake refunds. In the pop-up, scammers never mention what the refund is for. With so many companies offering refunds presently due to the outbreak, such as car insurance providers, utilities and more, users are quick to assume that the refund could be related to something that they are expecting.

The pop-up will say that the user has been charged some amount, but they can claim a refund by clicking on this link. Once a user clicks on the link, they are asked for their credit card information so that the charges could be reversed.

About 52,500 Americans have lodged a complaint with the FTC this year over scams related to COVID-19, amounting to over $38.6 million. This data, from January 1 to May 21 shows that people lost an average of $470 due to such scams.