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Coronavirus scams: How to spot ripoffs on air duct cleaning, test kits, government checks

Scammers are big fans of the coronavirus. The crisis is an opportunity to scare you and trick you into divulging your personal information or coughing up cash.

They’re trying to rip you off by phone, by email and even at your door. You need to protect yourself against them as much as you need to protect yourself against the virus.

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Here are examples of some of the latest frauds occurring nationwide. They could happen in Pennsylvania, too. Scams spread like viruses. Criminals get ideas from what other criminals are doing.

Phone scams

In Michigan, con artists spoofed the phone number of a local health department and tried to sell medication against the illness. Their goal was to dupe victims into disclosing their Medicaid and Medicare numbers, which were requested for billing purposes.

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Spoofing occurs when a caller displays a fake number on your caller ID. At times like this, they pick popular numbers that people may answer because they believe the call is important. So don’t trust your caller ID.

The scam also caused problems for the health department. People questioning the fraudulent calls jammed the department’s lines and interfered with efforts to deal with the coronavirus, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a news release.

Other phone scams offer people free coronavirus test kits. Real kits are in short supply even for health professionals, so don’t believe such offers.

Callers also are offering to protect you from coronavirus by cleaning your home’s air ducts “to make sure that the air you breathe is free of bacteria.”

You can hear that scam call, and calls about free test kits, on a new website set up by the Federal Communications Commission, fcc.gov/covid-scams.

Door-to-door scams

Fraudsters in New York have knocked on doors claiming to be from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, offering coronavirus tests for a fee, according to New York Attorney General Letitia James. The CDC does not do that.

Email/text message scams

Con artists are trying to steal your personal information by installing malware on your computer through links in emails and text messages purporting to offer advice about coronavirus. If they get your information, they can commit identity theft.

The Federal Trade Commission said one email has the logo of the World Health Organization and prompts recipients to click on a button to download a document. “Go through the attached document on safety measures regarding the spreading of corona virus,” it says.

Like many scam emails, this one is full of typos and errors that should cause recipients to question its legitimacy.

“Symptoms common symptoms include fever, coughcshortness of breath and breathing difficulties,” it says.

Don’t click on links or attachments in unsolicited emails. If you are searching for information about the coronavirus, go to the websites of the CDC (cdc.gov), the Pennsylvania Health Department (health.pa.gov) or the World Health Organization (who.int).

Government check/grant scams

Scammers are exploiting proposals by the federal government to send checks to people to ease financial problems caused by the health scare. Emails and social media posts prompt victims to clink on a link that takes them to what seems to be an official website that asks for personal information or banking details, according to the Better Business Bureau.

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Victims are told the information is necessary to verify their identity to process their grant.

Variations of the scam are occurring by text messages and phone calls and are targeted at senior citizens, telling them they can apply for a grant to pay medical bills. Victims are directed to a website claiming to be a government agency called the “U.S. Emergency Grants Federation.”

There is no such agency.

Investment scams

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is warning not to invest in companies based on social media or online promotions that their stock will jump dramatically because they have products or services that can prevent, detect or cure coronavirus.

The SEC warned that microcap stocks — low-priced stocks issued by the smallest companies — are particularly attractive for investment scams.

“There is often limited publicly available information about microcap companies’ management, products, services and finances,” the agency said in an advisory on its website. “This can make it easier for fraudsters to spread false information about the company and to profit at the expense of unsuspecting investors.”

Advice

Scammers exploit all big events, whether it’s the Super Bowl, a hurricane or a health crisis. You can protect yourself by not responding to unsolicited phone calls, emails and text messages. Don’t interact with door-to-door solicitors. Get information directly from reliable sources. Don’t believe everything you see on social media.

There is no vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration to prevent COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. And there is no treatment to cure it. If you believe you should be tested, contact your physician.

There is a vaccine against scams, though: information. Learn the signs of fraud, be skeptical and you’ll be protected.

Morning Call columnist Paul Muschick can be reached at 610-820-6582 or paul.muschick@mcall.com

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