Sgt. Joey Lewis is not coming to arrest you, Dominion Energy will not shut off your power and the IRS already knows everything about you and doesn’t need to call for your personal information.
Pandemic-caused closures, lockdowns, layoffs and a spate of Congress-approved economic stimuli are contributing to fear, anxiety and confusion — and making daily life just seem weird.
And when the going gets weird, the fleecers, swindlers and flimflamming scammers turn pro.
Schemes and frauds are taking a viral turn as crooks hook COVID-19 to con people out of money and personal information.
Authorities from organizations including the IRS, the U.S. Secret Service and Dominion Energy are warning people to hang up, lock the door or hit delete on callers, visitors and emails that seem suspicious or are too good to be true.
“This lockdown and the COVID-19 crises has been bad for 99.99% of our society, but for that one-thousandth of a percent who are working these scams, COVID-19 is manna from heaven in a big, gift-wrapped box,” said Barry N. Moore, president of the Better Business Bureau of Central Virginia.
“Something like [the pandemic] gives these people who work hard to steal your money a chance to really go to work,” Moore said. “It’s hard to not get trapped. You have to be on your game every day.”
The bureau tracks scams on its website and shows nearly 100 different rip-off projects, from credit card pfishing to callers pretending to be from utility companies.
They may even tell you they’re with the city police and you’re about to go to jail.
“Our most recent scam is someone posing to be Sgt. Joey Lewis or another [Charlottesville Police Department] officer threatening to arrest you unless you give them your bank account information and pay a $2,500 fine,” said Tyler Hawn, spokesman for the department. “This is a scam, and we will never ask for your bank or credit card information over the phone or threaten arrest with a fine.”
Several area residents also have reported scammers trying to get them to pay their power bill over the phone with a credit card under threat of disconnection. The payment would be refunded “after an investigation.”
Dominion Energy officials said they are aware of the phone scammers trying to get customers to pay bills they may not even owe.
“Scam artists are trying to take advantage of our customers during this difficult time,” said Samantha Moore, with Dominion Energy. “We will never call demanding immediate payment or threaten to cut off power.”
Dominion officials, in an email, noted that they have agreed to not shut off power for nonpayment during the pandemic.
Some people in Central Virginia have reported strangers dressed in shirts and ties and wearing ID badges knocking on their doors claiming to be making COVID-19 checks on the property.
Scammers in Maine sent out text messages to people warning them that “someone who came into contact with you” tested positive for COVID-19. The message includes a link that would possibly transmit a computer virus.
“We haven’t seen much yet. We’ve been posting a bunch of tips and alerts on our Facebook page,” said Capt. David R. Wells, of the Fluvanna County Sheriff’s Office. “The biggest thing is don’t give out personal information on the phone or over email, don’t cash checks that are over the amount — scammers will send fake checks for too much money and then want you to wire the rest back — and do nothing with wiring money or gift cards.”
The scammers aren’t just working state and local angles — they’re also pretending to work for almost every level of federal government.
“The Federal Trade Commission is getting a lot of reports about fraudulent calls, texts and emails coming from people pretending to be from the Social Security Administration, IRS, Census Bureau, [Citizenship and Immigration Services] and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation,” said Cristina Miranda, of the FTC.
“These fake government messages might say that you’re approved for money, can get quick relief payments, or get cash grants due to the coronavirus,” she said. “Scammers might also promise you small-business loans, or send an alert that a check is ready to be picked up. These are all scams, and none of those messages come from a government agency.”
With $1,200 federal stimulus checks on the way from Congress to assist Americans during the crisis, scammers have found a wide variety of excuses to convince people to give out personal information, IRS officials said.
“Scammers may ask an individual to sign over their economic impact payment check to them; ask for verification of personal or banking information; suggest that they can get someone a tax refund or payment faster by working on their behalf,” officials said in an email.
“The IRS will not call, email or text you to verify or request your financial, banking or personal information. Watch out for websites and social media attempts to request money or personal information,” tax officials said. “The official website is IRS.gov.”
The Secret Service warned that tax-related scams are still popular this time of year.
“Tax season, along with the latest COVID 19 scams, provide an ideal environment for criminals to take advantage of law-abiding citizens,” said Melissa McKenzie, with the Secret Service.
McKenzie noted that identity thieves will file fraudulent forms under a taxpayer’s name and Social Security number to snag a return payment. Most times, the taxpayer has no idea the fraud has occurred until they file their own return.
In 2019, an estimated 650,572 fraudulent tax returns were reported, costing the government about $2 billion.
“This fraud is particularly malicious because the legitimate taxpayer may have no way of knowing that fraud has been committed,” McKenzie said. “The scam only works for returns that haven’t been filed by legitimate consumers, so criminals are highly motivated to file as early as possible.”
If residents should be be wary of door knocks, phone rings and emails, they also should be downright skeptical of social media quizzes and games, the Better Business Bureau of Central Virginia warns.
Popular post games on Facebook, including supporting 2020 graduates who are missing their ceremonies by posting your own graduation picture, can put too much personal information where scammers can skim it, Moore said.
“The quizzes ask a lot of questions that seem like fun — where you grew up, the name of your high school, your first car — but those are all security questions used by a lot of banks and financial businesses,” Moore said. “Don’t let having a little idle social media fun turn into a nightmare from aiding in your identity being stolen.”