Online Stimulus Check Scams Are On the Rise—Here's How to Stay Protected

In the coming weeks, money from a federal stimulus package is expected to start hitting Americans' bank accounts—and scammers are already using it as a lure in criminal campaigns.

Fraudsters are currently posing as government officials and reaching out to potential victims via texts and social media messages in attempts to siphon personal information or bank account details, exploiting public uncertainties and fears being fueled by the ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak.

Under a $2 trillion stimulus package, eligible Americans will be sent a one-time payment of up to $1,200 per person, with parents receiving up to another $500 for each child under 17.

The federal relief, intended to reduce the mounting financial and economic damage caused by COVID-19, is expected to be directly deposited into bank accounts within three weeks, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CBS News' Face the Nation Sunday, as previously reported.

Mnuchin said a "web-based system" will also be created to let eligible citizens upload details and get access to their funds immediately, which could create another potential cybersecurity risk. So what are major red flags of the most-prevalent online scams and how can you keep your information secure?

"Fake stimulus check scams could be very successful considering the financial chaos coronavirus has unleashed on families worldwide," Christopher Boyd, lead malware intelligence analyst with California-based antivirus and cybersecurity company Malwarebytes, told Newsweek.

"U.S. residents should avoid any communication requesting processing or clearance fees to release the funds, and anything which deviates from the stated relief amounts," he added. "The money will be issued without people having to do anything, so any and all requests to login to websites, hand over existing login credentials, or pass on bank or credit card information will be fraudulent."

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) says it has already received reports about government impostors contacting potential victims via the internet about the upcoming federal relief checks.

In one recent example, the BBB said a social media post claimed a person had qualified for a special COVID-19 government grant. The link led to a website that asked for personal information and bank details to verify an identity and process the grant, which would obviously never arrive.

In another case, a post on Facebook that was being advertised towards older citizens had claimed to help provide a "special grant to help pay medical bills." In a third, scammers claimed citizens could get an further $150,000 or receive funds early by sharing details and paying a "processing fee."

"No matter what the message, don't click," the BBB warned. "In addition to taking your money, these sites also can download malware to your device and use your information for identity theft."

Peter Neronha, the Attorney General of Rhode Island, shared a phishing text to Twitter, showing how it had been pushing a booby-trapped link under the guise of an "assistance check."

"I can imagine lots of criminal gangs will use COVID-19 to target people who are desperate for money," cybersecurity expert Robert Pritchard told Newsweek.
He added: "Be extremely wary, especially of people soliciting details via social media, or asking you for some sort of money up front. Verify everything through an authoritative source."

Scams related to the COVID-19 emergency – especially dealing w/government assistance or stimulus checks – have been reported to the RIAG.

Scammers will try & contact you by text, email, & phone call.

Do not click on links or give out personal info❗️#COVID19 scam texts ⬇️

— Peter Neronha (@AGNeronha) March 25, 2020

It's difficult to say how many people actually fall victim to such scams but experts say they prey on the vulnerable, tailoring the "lure" to current events. The more emotional the better.

"Many attackers seem to lack any sort of sympathy and to them anything and anyone is fair game," independent security researcher Sean Wright told Newsweek.

"Attackers will use any means to further their own gain, and often this will typically mean using current developments, such as the one we are facing at the moment.

"Many attackers are very good at what they do, so they pose a real danger. Especially to those who may not have all the skills and knowledge to spot and deal with these types of scams or attacks."

Multiple federal and state officials have issued warnings about a rise of financial scams in recent weeks, including New York Attorney General Letitia James, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser.

"It's important to remember that the federal government hasn't issued a single stimulus check yet, and will not call you on the phone to ask for sensitive personal information," Weiser said. "Anyone who claims to be able to send money now—and asks for your information—is a scammer."

How to stay protected

It's vital to remember that the government will not ask citizens to pay anything to receive the relief funds, and never asks for social security, bank or credit card numbers over the phone.

"Do not click on any links in texts/SMS or email unless you are 100 percent sure that the message is from a trusted source," security researcher Wright told Newsweek.

"Perform a search through a service such as Google to get the company site or news/information which you might be looking for. Be very cautious about installing applications, especially via any instructions in an email. For mobile devices, only install apps via the official app stores.

"Also, if you can, avoid installing any software which you don't need. Make sure you have Antivirus installed. For Windows I recommend Windows Defender which is free. Finally be wary about any information which you read online, especially via social media. There is a lot of false information going around at the moment. If you can, corroborate the information by doing a web search."

Man shopping online (Stock)
Fraudsters are currently posing as the government and reaching out to potential victims via texts and social media messages in attempts to siphon off personal information or bank account details, exploiting the uncertainty being fueled by the ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak. iStock