A plague is terrorizing the nation. No. Not that one. A cyber plague! The cyber plague is a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic, but its target is your wealth and identity, not your health. For scammers, the pandemic is a perfect storm of opportunity. Entire workforces went from working on company networks – protected by security pros – to working from home. People are home, constantly online, already scared, and often slipping into debt. Then came stimulus checks. Next came vaccines. And then more stimulus checks. It has been a rough year for law-abiding citizens. But it has been a gold rush for scammers, hackers, and cybercriminals.

Scammers reach you through any means available to them. They might use email, phone calls, fake Web sites, social media, malware, texts, mail, accosting you on the street, or knocking on your door to try and lure you into buying into their con. They are good at it. This is how they make money, and, as an industry, scammers are raking it in. According to Statista, $19.7 billion was lost to scams in 2020, a huge jump from 2019 ($10.5 billion).

The only way to arm yourself against these scams is to recognize them when they happen. You can stop a scam cold simply by not listening, putting down the phone, leaving the Web site, not opening that email, ignoring that link on social media, or refusing to believe that the person at your door is the taxman. To survive this cyber-apocalypse, you have to learn to be as suspicious as a cold-war spy. If you look at that email or phone call and suspect a con, you won’t fall for it.  You have to train yourself to spot the con. No one else can protect you. You can’t call your tech-savvy brother-in-law or your cousin who works in security to get your money back because, by the time you’ve sent money, you been had.

Here are 10 scams and how to spot them.

1.      Stimulus Check Scams

Most of the country is expecting a stimulus check in the mail and scammers know it. They are firing up their cons to fool you into believing that they are bringing that check to you. They have several clever tricks for doing this.

In one they send you a fake check in the mail. Naturally, you take it to the bank and deposit it. You are thrilled! So when they tell you that they overpaid you and need you to give some of the money back, what’s the harm? That’s your clue that this is a scam. The IRS will never do this, and you can be sure now that the check is fake. It can take weeks for a bank to realize that a check is fake and the scammers are hoping that, in that time, you will give them some money. You will be on the hook for that money though. When the check bounces, it will come out of your balance.

You might also get an email, social media post, or text claiming to be the government. It will ask you to click a link and confirm your personal information. It might even ask for your bank account information to confirm where to deposit the check. Never follow a link you get in email, see on social media, or get via text and give up personal data of any kind. Never. Even if the request is legitimate, and it probably isn’t, no company should be doing this in this day and age. Sending links to lure in marks is called phishing. In this case, it is being used to your social security information and other sensitive personal details that can then be sold to identity thieves or used to rob you.

If you want the status of your check or any information about your taxes from the IRS, open a browser window and go to IRS.gov.

2.      Fake Charities

Every time there is a disaster anywhere on the planet or a sad story in the news, charity scams start. There are so many of these that you have to be very careful whenever you donate money. Fake charities can be very convincing and your money goes to a thief, not the charity you intended it for. If you want to donate, do some research. One red flag is to help you spot a fake charity is that the fakes want you to pay in ways that can’t be traced – cash, gift card, or wire. Real charities are happy to get a check or payment via credit card. You can research a charity at the BBS’ Give.org, Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, or GuideStar.

3.      Imposter Scams

The phone rings. You answer. The person on the other end of the phone tells you he is calling from Social Security or the IRS or another official office and that you are in serious trouble. Don’t listen! This is an imposter scam and these are rampant right now. The goal here is to scare you into giving the scammer money.  Even if the phone number on your caller ID looked real, you probably aren’t in trouble or about to be arrested. Hang up the phone and think about it. Would Social Security or the IRS send you to Walmart to buy gift cards?

All you have to do is hang up. Even better? Don’t answer calls from numbers you don’t recognize. If it’s important, the caller will leave a message, and that will give you a minute to ask yourself, “Could this be a scam?” Usually that’s all it takes for people to realize that it is.

4.      The Friend in Need

Another version of the imposter scam is when the con artist pretends to be someone you know. Maybe it’s your Gran or a niece you don’t see often or a friend you fallen out of touch with. But this call or text isn’t because they miss you and want to catch up. It’s an emergency! They are in a desperate situation and need cash right now. They are stranded somewhere and need a ticket home, need bail, or were in an accident and can’t pay the hospital bill.

The thing is? Your Gran is probably fine. This is a common scam that’s been happening, in one form or another, for years. It’s easy for fraudsters to scroll through social media to get enough information about you to throw out a name and a few pertinent facts in order to gain your trust so that all it takes is a phone and some acting skills to run this scam. Stay calm. Consider every phone call a possible con and do some checking before you decide to help anyone.

In this case, ask a question only your friend would be able to answer, check with someone in the family to see if the travel/hospital/jail story is possible. Ask the caller to text a photo confirming they are who and where they say they are with today’s paper in it, Cold-War-Spy style! Be extra suspicious if the scammer asks you to keep this situation secret. Never wire money or buy gift cards and send the pin numbers! (That’s scammer’s gold, right there.) If it’s really someone you care about, they will want you to take these precautions.

5.      Debt Relief and Credit Repair

You know what other tasty facts are easy for scammers to get? That you are in debt or have a poor credit score. And they will come out of the woodwork to help you out with this. Hang up the phone. Throw away the mailers. Ignore the ads on social media. And don’t respond to texts or emails. Giving money to a scammer won’t help with this.

This scammer will offer to negotiate with credit card companies for lower payments or debt forgiveness or to renegotiate your car loan to reduce your payments. They might also offer to do all the work to remove negative remarks from your credit report. Here’s the catch though: They want to get paid, often quite a lot of money. And the other thing? They won’t do any of this.

The FTC says that it has “brought scores of law enforcement actions against these bogus credit-related services.” You don’t want to be the next one of those. If you can afford to pay that scammers fee, pay down a credit card instead. That’s the way to fix your credit rating and get out of debt.

6.      Extended Car Warranties

This scam is so common that I hang up on three or four of these every week. The car warranty scam usually comes to you in the form of a phone call – or a letter — where the scammer pretends to be calling from your insurance company, the car manufacturer, or your auto warranty company. You might be put on hold (for verisimilitude) and then asked to give up some personal information to locate your account.

Never give personal information to someone who called you!

That information will be sold to identity thieves or used to defraud you. This scammer might ask for a social security number, a bank account number, credit card information, your diver’s license number, or more. Anytime someone calls and asks for anything like that, hang up. Legitimate organizations do not make calls like this because this scam is common. Hang up the phone. Don’t call the number on the letter. If you are worried about your car warranty or insurance, look up the number of your warranty company or insurance agent and call them directly.

7.      Prize Scam

That dream you have of winning the lottery just came true! Except not for you, for the scammer who convinced you to wire money, give up personal information, or – oops! – give back a chunk of the fat check they sent you. When someone calls you to tell you that you have won a prize, it is almost always a scam. If you really win the lottery, your notice won’t come by bulk mail, you won’t have to pay a fee, and they won’t accidentally send you too big a check and ask for some of it back. And the lottery people – at any organization – will never ask you to wire them money.

Let me repeat:

  •         Don’t wire money to anyone you don’t know.
  •         If a stranger sends you a check and asks for some of it back, don’t send it until the check clears because it probably won’t.
  •         Never give up your social security number, driver’s license number, bank account numbers, credit card number, or any other sensitive information unless you are very, very sure you know who you are giving it to. Even then, ask why they need it.

8.      Vaccine Scam

Hucksters love a disaster. And a global pandemic is certainly that. They know that millions of people are waiting to get vaccinated and that there is confusion, fear, and desperation. That’s perfect soil for a scam. If anyone offers to sell you a vaccine, says they can skip you to the head of the line for a fee, or to ship vaccines directly to you, don’t bite. They will take your money but you won’t get the vaccine any sooner.

9.      Tax Scams

There are so many scams that get your attention by claiming to from the IRS, that’s it’s a good policy to never open an email, answer a door, listen to a phone pitch, or click on a link that has anything to do with taxes. If you get a call, email, or text from someone and you think it might be legit, don’t respond to it. Instead go to IRS.gov and look up your account or call the IRS (800-829-1040) to find out what’s going on. Tax scams are used to infect your computer with malware, steal personal information, and rob you of money.

10. The Tech Support Scam

The Tech Support scam is a clever ruse that targets people who are not super tech savvy. You land on a web page or get infected with a virus or receive a phone call from someone who claims that your computer has been compromised. The web page might flash a scary message that tells you to call Microsoft or Apple support immediately. Or the caller might claim to be calling from tech support.

This is, almost always, a scam. Tech support doesn’t call you when you have a problem; real error messages don’t include phone numbers; and your computer probably isn’t even compromised. But the person on the other end of the phone – if you call or keep listening – will try to scare you into thinking it is. They will also ask you to wire money or buy gift cards and send them the numbers. They might even ask you to download software that lets them control your computer.

Don’t do any of this. Don’t take that phone call or call that number. The message on your screen will very likely go away if restart your computer. If you do need help, call Microsoft or Apple tech support yourself.