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Detecting the signs of financial scams during COVID-19

Woman listening on phone with a confused face
March 23, 2020

By Claire Hegstrom

"Criminals are exploiting the fear and uncertainty created by COVID-19 to prey on innocent citizens who are only looking to protect their health and that of their loved ones," said INTERPOL (International Criminal Police Organization) Secretary General Jürgen Stock. Unfortunately, fraudsters are aware that at this time, we are all feeling our most vulnerable. Knowing the signs of a financial scam during the coronavirus pandemic – and during other times of crisis – is your first line of defense. We’re here to help show you how to spot a fishy phone call or email, and how to report scams you may come across.

With coronavirus pandemic fear spreading, we are seeing the following scams unfolding:

  • Criminals posing as government workers asking for Social Security numbers, bank accounts or credit card numbers to start the process for receiving a federal check.
  • People imitating healthcare workers or healthcare billing departments trying to collect money for “a loved one who has fallen ill with coronavirus, who doesn’t have funds for treatment.”
  • Phishing emails claiming to be sent from national or global health authorities trying to trick victims into providing personal or payment information, often including an attachment containing malware.
  • False websites, social media groups or ads claiming to be selling high-demand products like surgical masks, hand sanitizer and other medical equipment.

So how do you determine what is a scam? Take extra precaution when answering phone calls, opening emails or browsing websites while shopping. Additionally, below we share some clues that might help you spot a potential fraudster.

Let’s cover the basics of spotting a financial scam:

  1. The government will never ask you to pay anything up front to get a federal check or direct deposit.
  2. Government or health care workers will never reach out to you and ask for your Social Security number, bank account or credit card information.
  3. In times of financial distress, medical bills can be billed for later payment. A hospital would never call a relative to demand up-front money to treat their loved one.
  4. If you receive an email or come across an online vendor selling high-demand supplies that are in shortage across the United States, it’s probably fake. Be on the lookout for spelling errors in emails or strange timestamps, and do not open any attachments or links, as they may be carrying malware to steal your personal information from your computer.

If you spot any of these financial scams, or are wondering if correspondence is legitimate, there are multiple ways to protect yourself. First, report any suspicious activity to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at www.ftc.gov/complaint. Secondly, never hesitate to reach out to your financial institution if something seems fishy regarding any calls, letters or emails you receive about your finances. If something feels off, it probably is. Trusting your gut is the best thing you can do to protect yourself, your family and your finances.


Claire Hegstrom is an advocate of the credit union movement through and through. Passionate about financial education, she approaches money conversations from a candid and inclusive space focused on growth and awareness. As our credit union founding father, Ed Filene, once said, “Progress is the constant replacing of the best there is with something still better.” Claire hopes reading Money Mentor will help transform your life from the best to even better.

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