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Beware of COVID-19 Scams

Criminally-minded individuals will choose to take advantage of almost any situation if they perceive a possible benefit to them.  Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic is no exception.  As of June 4, 2020, the Federal Trade Commission estimated that coronavirus-related scams have cost Americans $46.2 million.  There are several scams related to the COVID-19 crisis that everyone should be aware of.

Contact Tracing Text Message Scams

Contact tracing is the process of identifying people who have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 and providing guidance to prevent them from spreading it.  According to the Virginia Department of Health, contract tracers are skilled, trained professionals, and it is important for members of the community to trust these professionals, respond to their outreach, and follow their guidance to stop the spread of COVID-19.  However, how do we know who is legitimate and who is not?

People who had contact with someone infected with COVID-19 may first get a text message from the health department, telling them they will get a call from a specific number.  In Virginia, the initial contact is by phone, and if the party is not reached, the caller will leave a voice-mail message.  A legitimate tracer will not ask for personal information, like Social Security numbers, nor will they ask you for money, your bank account number or credit card number.  A legitimate tracer will not send you a text message asking you to click on a link. 

Stimulus Check Scams

The key to avoiding almost all IRS-related scams is knowing how the IRS communicates.  The IRS will not call you or send you an email to ask for personal information.  Yet, scammers are taking advantage of the confusion and delay around the stimulus program to make phone calls or send emails promising a faster delivery of your stimulus check.  If the person who calls or emails you is asking for personal information or to click on a link, it is almost certainly a scammer.  The IRS will also never ask you to pay money in order to get your money.  You should expect a check for $1,200 if you’re single, $2,400 if you’re married, plus $500 for each dependent child.  If you get a check for an odd amount, or if you are asked to provide your bank details in order to cash it, you have probably received a fake check.

Tech Support Scams and Fake Bosses/Co-Workers

While many Americans are working remotely from their homes, they are also probably hesitant to let anyone in their homes to help with technical support.  This leaves the telephone or the internet as the only solutions.  Scammers are waiting for you to perform a Google search of a company’s tech support line.  The better option is to go to the company’s official web site and get the phone number from the Contact Us section.

Along these same lines, scammers can take advantage of the work-from home situation because strange messages are harder to verify when workers are not in one place.  Scammers may impersonate your company’s help desk, requesting passwords for “verification.”  Always confirm these types of requests by phone call to your actual help desk.

Health Care Scams

While legitimate medical professionals and scientists are working on a cure, a treatment and a vaccine for COVID-19, scammers are selling fraudulent test kits and unapproved treatments through telemarketing calls, social media, and even door-to-door visits.  Teas, essential oils, cannabinol, colloidal silver and intravenous vitamin-C therapies are just some of the alleged antiviral treatments being sold by scammers.  Many scammers are promising free care and free COVID-19 testing to patients in order to gain access to their personal and health insurance information.  Once this information is obtained, scammers use it to bill federal health care programs or private health insurance plans for tests and procedures the individual did not receive and pocket the proceeds.

Charity Scams

If you are considering donating to a charity to help those in need during the pandemic, beware of charitable organizations or crowdfunding campaigns that only recently launched in response to the pandemic.  Consider researching the charity online through independent sources like IRS Select Check[1] before making that donation. 

The Best Defense

Say NO if:

  • Anyone contacts you and asks for your Social Security number, bank account number, credit card information, Medicare ID number, or driver’s license number;
  • Someone you don’t know contacts you and requests money for coronavirus victims or disease research, especially if they pressure you to act fast and request payment through a Peer to Peer payment app like Venmo or through pre-paid debit cards or gift cards;
  • Someone you don’t know sends you a check and asks you to send a portion of the money back;
  • Something doesn’t feel right to you.  Trust your gut and realize that some things ARE too good to be true.    

[1] https://apps.irs.gov/app/eos/

Ask Kit Kat: Inebriated Animals?

Hook Law Center: Kit Kat, what can you tell us about whether or not animals can become inebriated like humans?

Kit Kat: Well, this is an interesting topic which I never even really thought about until reading an article in The New York Times. Basically, the article explored how different species process 7% ethanol, the ingredient in alcohol which can make one inebriated. People and certain animals have a gene mutation which allows them to process alcohol in a process called digestion. In other animals, that gene mutation doesn’t exist.

One of the greatest myths which the article dispelled is that elephants would need as much alcohol proportionally as a human in order to become drunk. So for a 6,600 pound elephant, theoretically, 27 liters of alcohol would be necessary. Such a quantity of alcohol obviously would be unavailable in the wild. What the researchers came to realize was that elephants, dogs and cows do not have the gene to process much alcohol. Only a small amount of alcohol could cause them to become inebriated or act uncharacteristically. According to Amanda Melin, a molecular ecologist at the University of Calgary and co-author of the team who undertook the study, “It was far more likely for animals that eat the leafy part of plants or for carnivores to lose the gene. The takeaway is that diet is important in what we see happening in molecular evolution.” Reports of elephants getting rowdy and crashing various sites may have been due to their accidental alcohol consumption, usually beer. It wouldn’t require much for them to become tipsy and rowdy as a herd did in 1974 when 150 elephants in India went on a rampage, destroyed buildings, and killed 5 people.

On the other hand, humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas can process alcohol much more efficiently, because they all have a genetic mutation that enables them to metabolize alcohol 40x faster than other primates. Scientists think the mutation happened around 10 million years ago when these species shifted from arboreal to terrestrial living. With that change came a different diet in which fruit was added. The fruit, which could be fermented at times, accustomed them to food with an alcoholic content.

Nature continues to surprise. Scientists learn more and more every day. (Rachel Nuwer, “Elephants Really Can’t Hold Their Liquor,” The New York Times – Trilobites, May 20, 2020)

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