Phone scammers have a long history and a large playbook, but with COVID-19 concerns heightened and stimulus checks going out to individuals, law enforcement officials are looking out for new tricks.
Capt. Scott Moore with the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office expects scammers to target residents with messages about testing kits and stimulus checks, but their calls have some tells.
“The main thing they’re trying to do is intimidate you,” he said. “They’ll give off the name of one of our employees to convince people this is the real thing and scare them into not thinking clearly, and we’ve had people come up to the clerk’s office with a money order for a certain amount of cash based on these calls.”
Moore said COVID-19-specific scams have not been widely reported in the county but offered some advice for when they hit.
“When people start asking, do not give any personal information over the phone,” he said, adding that anything involving gift cards or store credit as payment is a red flag. “These people are able to spoof the caller ID number and make it look like our agency is calling, so the best thing to do is hang up and call our number to authenticate whether it was a scammer.”
Capt. Tyler Chandler of the Mt. Juliet Police Department said scammers also employ other methods to take advantage of people when payments are distributed, or during tax season.
“Fraudsters typically try to get their hands on the economic impact money prior to the victim getting their hands on it,” he said in a statement emailed to the Lebanon Democrat. “They use methods such as phishing — using a fake email that captures personal information — or by calling and acting like a member of the government or the IRS.”
Chandler said the IRS will never call or email to verify personal information, and recommended people watch for scammers’ tendency to use common phrases like “stimulus checks” and “stimulus payments” in their messages. While many people use those terms in conversation, the official term is economic impact payment.
“With any new government program that provides payments to individuals, there is always a potential for scams,” Chandler said. “It is important for our community, especially the more vulnerable, elderly population, to understand that there are tricks out there. We all need to be vigilant and watch out for tricks scammers play.”
Officers are also in contact with other Tennessee counties already dealing with COVID-19 scams, which have left a significant impact nationwide. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that Americans have lost $13.4 million to COVID-19-related fraud this year based on consumer reports.
“There are a few common scams we’re seeing right now,” FTC Southeast Region Director Anna Burns said. “One of the top ones is government imposter scams, where people are pretending to be members of the CDC or World Health Organization. They’re asking people to click links in their emails about treatments or payment so they can download malware onto their computer.”
According to Burns, another common tactic for scammers is to trick people into thinking they need to make a payment to receive stimulus funding.
“We’re encouraging people to only use irs.gov/coronavirus to submit information to the IRS,” she said. “And never submit information via text or email. The IRS will not call, text or reach out to people on social media. We’re also telling people never to respond to texts they’re receiving and to hang up on robocalls, because if you respond they put you on a lead list and you’ll probably receive more.”
Burns said anyone who is victimized by a scam should report it at ftccomplaintassistant.gov or call a local law enforcement agency.
“This is an ongoing problem, and it’s sickening to know there are people out there fishing away hard-earned money from people while this country is going through such hardship,” Moore said. “Way back when scams started to become an issue, they generally focused on our elderly population. Fast-forward to what’s going on today and they’re targeting everybody, it doesn’t matter if you’re 18 or 80.”