In these pandemic times, scammers are stepping up their game, taking advantage of COVID-19 anxiety and confinement. Older adults were their first targets. Now scammers are bolder, infiltrating the phone calls, emails, and snail mail of almost everyone. Ask around. Chances are someone you know has either been the victim of a scam or an attempt. What are these imposters trying to snag? Your personal identifying information. It might be a credit card or bank account number they’re after, or perhaps the biggest key to your ID—your Social Security number.
To help you avoid identity theft, learn to recognize these top seven scams of the past six months:
1. COVID-19 and the Imposter Unemployment Claim
With unemployment rising due to the pandemic, some scammers are trying to game the system. This happened to a teacher I know. She received a letter that appeared to be from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR—our state taxing authority), asking that she confirm her claim for unemployment benefits. She had made no such claim, and she was immediately suspicious. It’s good that she reported the letter, because had this scam succeeded, the scammer would have received benefits under the teacher’s name. Unemployment benefit payments are taxable income, so the teacher would have received a 1099-G reporting that income and would have been liable for taxes on benefits paid to someone else! The real DOR investigated and traced the scam to a bank account in Nevada.
2. The Unwelcome Concierge
On those rare occasions when you might be staying at a hotel these days, it’s even rarer to get a call on your room phone. But a friend of mine recently had this experience. Her hotel room phone rang, and the caller identified himself as an employee of the hotel. He explained that the guest database, including credit card information, had been hacked and asked my friend to “confirm” her credit card number. She didn’t trust the caller and offered to meet him at the front desk in the lobby. The response was a dial tone. Remember: never, ever, give out personal information over the phone, period.
3. The Amazon.com Order Confirmation Email
Many of us are relying on orders from Amazon due to pandemic shopping constraints. This scam attempt recently happened to a colleague of mine. She received an email, supposedly from Amazon, informing her that her $5,800 flat TV was shipped, and that if the order was a mistake, to call a certain number. When she placed the call, it was immediately clear that this was an attempt to get credit card information, which she refused to do. After logging into her Amazon account, she discovered that there was no such order.
My tip for a suspicious email like this is to click on the “From” line. If it says firstname.lastname@example.org or something else equally fishy, it is suspect. Another giveaway: Read the language of the email closely for unusual phrasing or odd spelling. My colleague’s email from Amazon used the word “dispatched” instead of “shipped.” Clearly, the scammer is not an Amazon customer!
4. The Hacked Professional
With the pandemic limiting in-person transactions, many real estate deals are now being processed entirely online. Here’s what happened to a client of another colleague of mine who is a real estate attorney, about two months ago. During one transaction, when his client’s closing was imminent, the client’s employee received an email that appeared to be from my colleague, asking him to wire the closing fees to a certain bank account. For the client, this scam seemed totally believable because the scammer was aware of the details of the deal.
We soon discovered that the scammer had hacked into the client’s email weeks before and had followed the details and flow of the entire transaction. If this happens to you or your business, contact your IT department immediately.
A variation on this scam involves an email sent from your hacked address to people involved with the deal, instructing them to use a new bank account for funds transfers, due to a restructuring. Any last minute switch-up like this should ring alarm bells. If you ignore the warning signs, your proceeds will end up in the scammer’s bank account.
5. The Long-Lost Heir
As an estate planning attorney who also probates estates, I’m sometimes required to call strangers and request that they give me information to help locate a long-lost heir in connection with the administration of an estate. To ease their natural skepticism of such a request, I give them my contact information and our website address, and ask them them contact me on their own. Of course, we never ask for any financial or personal information.
With the tragic rising death toll from COVID-19, there is an increasing likelihood that you might receive such a query, not in a phone call, but in the form of a letter from someone posing as a lawyer or banker. Please click here to see an actual such letter that my family received just last month. Note the dead giveaway: The language is peculiar, and the letter’s sender asks us to call his mobile number—he’s not the most professional banker I know! Steer clear of any such inquiry.
6. The E-Commerce Scam
This scam has befallen customers of big box stores such as BJ’s Wholesale Club—again, it’s more likely to occur now due to the increase in online mail-order purchases. First, the chain’s database is hacked, and your credit card number and other identifying information are stolen. Next, an online purchase is made in your name. Then the item ships to your house. You call the store to let them know you did not make the purchase. In one particular case, BJs told the victim that this is such a frequent occurrence that he predicted a return label would be sent to their house and to toss the label. The scammer did in fact send a phony return label that would ship the item to them, not back to BJs—and, of course, you’re stuck with the bill, since there’s no refund from the BJs poseur.
7. The Social Security Scare
This all-too-common scam predates the pandemic. A client of ours called in a state of hysteria. She told me that “Social Security” left her a voicemail informing her that there is a warrant out for her arrest due to suspected Social Security fraud. She was instructed to call a Social Security office number if the message was in error. The first thing to do if you receive such a call is to hang up. The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has an excellent explanation of how to recognize a Social Security scam. If you do get fooled and call the number, and someone answers right away, that’s another dead giveaway. As an estate planning attorney, I can tell you that calling Social Security is a “test of patience,” as our estate administration paralegal calls it. No one ever answers quickly. Again, never give any identifying information to a stranger over the phone.
One more general tip regarding unexpected emails: Don’t be shy. If you get an email from a family member, friend, co-worker or other professional with a strange link and an obscure message, call them and ask “did you send me this email with a link?” Everyone will understand the reasoning behind the scrutiny. Also, never click on a suspicious link in an email you’ve received from an unknown sender, or even from someone you know in an unusual (for them) format. One-liner messages that tell you to click on a link or download are often phishing scams that can hijack your computer, inject a virus, or wreak other havoc. Stay Calm And Mindful!
Your lawyers at Mountain, Dearborn & Whiting LLP hope you stay safe and vigilant!