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By Andi Bourne
Pathfinder 

Be vigilant against pandemic scams, frauds

 


Local and state agencies are warning consumers to beware of frauds exploiting the outbreak of COVID-19 and the economic stimulus checks that will be distributed across the country.

“Scammers are hard at work turning breaking news into ways to steal your money or personal information. While we know about several types of COVID-19 scams, these frauds are constantly evolving, and the best tool you have to protect yourself is your own good judgment,” Attorney General Tim Fox said. “Fraudsters are working COVID-19 into common phone scams you may already be familiar with. For example, a new twist on the grandparent scam says that your loved one is in the hospital due to COVID-19 and cash needs to be sent right away. Or, a variation of the shipping package scam says ‘your delivery of masks and equipment for coronavirus’ or ‘your coronavirus prescription’ are ready.”

Fox advised if one of these calls is received, hang up immediately.

As of April 2, the Office of Consumer Protection has received 17 complaints related to COVID-19 (14 price-gouging complaints, three complaints related to cancellation policies).

The Montana Department of Revenue warns Montanans to watch out for scams related to the recently announced federal stimulus package. With recent news of direct payments to Americans based on their 2018 or 2019 tax information, scammers are already contacting individuals by phone, email and text, trying to solicit personal, financial and tax information that can be used for identity theft and financial fraud.

Especially troubling is that tax preparers, with access to large volumes of personal information, have already been targeted.

Extensions in the deadlines to July 15 for federal and Montana individual income tax filing and payments are also adding to the opportunity for scammers. The Department advises Montana taxpayers to file their taxes as soon as possible, and to file electronically, to narrow the opportunity for fraudulent activity related to their information.

Montanans who receive a suspicious call from someone claiming to be with the Montana Department of Revenue should contact the department at MTRevenue.gov/contact to verify the source. Neither the department nor the IRS will call taxpayers asking for personal information such as Social Security Numbers or banking information.

Citizens Alliance Bank VP Branch Manager and Loan Officer Eric Hayhurst said they have already had customers receiving requests for personal information and account numbers to speed up payments and help secure benefits. Some have even received checks that they are instructed to cash and then mail back a certain percentage.

“There are numerous scams that are occurring. I would challenge anything that looks suspect especially if they are asking for money, fees or money to be wired back or specific account numbers,” said Hayhurst.

Hayhurst said one way to recognize a scam is looking for typos, poor grammar or other errors in letters, emails or texts. He encourages anyone that has a letter or check that they are questioning to bring it to the drive through and they will review it for legitimacy.

“Be super diligent, cautious and error on the safe side,” said Hayhurst. “Question anything that looks out of the ordinary.”

Scammers are also targeting Medicare and Medicaid recipients. The public is reminded to never give out their Medicare number to another other than their doctor, health care provider or trusted representative. Medicare recipients are encouraged to protect their Medicare number like they would a credit card number and read their Medicare Summary Notices or Medicare Advantage Explanation of Benefits.

Report all Medicaid scams to: Medicaid member/client fraud, 1-800-201-6308; Medicaid provider fraud, 1-800-376-1115 or visit http://www.dphhs.mt.gov/montanahealthcareprograms/fraudandabuse

Additional consumer safety tips to avoid COVID-19 fraud:

• Scams can come in any format, including a text, social media message, phone call, voicemail, email, or even a television advertisement. Consider any communication from an unknown person to be suspicious. Don’t click on links from unknown sources, which could download malware onto your device.

• It’s safest not to pick up from any phone number you don’t recognize. Let the caller leave a voicemail; decide later whether to respond.

• If you answer and it’s a robocall, hang up immediately. Don’t press any numbers, even if the message promises to have you removed from their call list. Pressing numbers leads to more scam calls.

• Do not confirm information requested from callers claiming to be from Social Security. Social Security will never call you!

• While it’s true that an economic stimulus check or direct deposit should be mailed, it could be weeks before that money arrives. Ignore anyone who says they can get you that money sooner, whether through a grant or for a fee.

• Loans through the CARES Act will be administered through the lending institution and should be received through direct deposit or a check from the institution.

• If someone contacts you and informs you of a compensation/reimbursement fund for those affected by the COVID -19 outbreak, do your research! If such funds do exist, they will be created by the government and there will be a record of its creation. Also, such a program would require you to apply for aid. Remember services are given to those who request them. They are not distributed randomly or offered to the public individually.

• With people out of work nationwide, there will surely be an influx of “work-from-home scam” victims. Online “jobs” where you are asked to purchase and then mail products are scams. Any job where you accept a check and then are asked to send part of that check to someone else is scam. For help figuring out whether an online job is a scam, call the Office of Consumer Protection or visit https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/pass-it-on/work-at-home-scams

• Ignore offers for vaccinations, oils, pills, potions, lotions or lozenges that claim to prevent, treat or cure COVID-19. They are most likely a scam.

• If you wish to give online to a charity, verify the organization is a legitimate one. Look up the phone number (don’t take it from the same website) and call to make sure the site is real. Pay attention to the details of names and logos, for example “TheRandomCharity.org” as opposed to “RandomCharity.org.” Small differences in names, titles and headings can be hard to notice, but are tell-tale signs of fraud. Visit charity rating systems like charitynavigator.org or charitywatch.org that research charities and rank them based on how much good they do with your donations.

• Rely only on trusted sources for COVID-19 information, such as the Montana Department of Justice, Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization and the Montana Coronavirus Task Force.

If you think you have been a victim of a scam, contact the Legal Services Developer Program (1-800-332-2272), Adult Protective Services (1-844-277-9300) and/or Office of Consumer Protection (1-800-481-6896).

 

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