The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act distributed $2.2 trillion in economic stimulus to roughly 160 million taxpayers. As soon as checks went out, reports of CARES stimulus check scams against seniors and others began to emerge. At present, the FTC reports that COVID-19 stimulus check-related scams have accounted for more than $40 million in fraud loss.
As with many financial scamming efforts, seniors are particularly vulnerable to CARES Act stimulus check scams. Their tactics are increasingly sophisticated and effective, which means it’s vital to stay informed on how you and your loved ones can avoid falling prey to a stimulus check scam if a suspicious message ends up in your inbox.
Thieves and scammers use a variety of tools to steal from their targets. Many of these efforts include more than one kind of approach: they can take the form of text messages or emails that impersonate government agents, suspicious phone calls, or social media messaging. But that’s only the beginning.
The IRS sent CARES Act stimulus funds electronically for taxpayers who file their returns online. These payments go straight into the direct deposit account associated with your most recent tax return, and those who have not used direct deposit for their tax returns were given the opportunity to provide bank account information for a new direct deposit account. Those who did not choose either of these two payment methods were sent paper checks.
Electronic transfer hasn’t stopped criminals from sending out fake stimulus checks, however. One of the more common scams involves sending targets a fake check and calling soon thereafter to impersonate the IRS and inform the victim that they were overpaid. The scammer then tells the recipient of the fake check to send back the balance, and keep the original check. Since their check is a forgery, the bank will ultimately reject the deposit—but not before the scammer is able to cash your (very real) payment. You’ll also owe money to your bank as a consequence in the form of a bounced check fee.
Many scammers use social media to impersonate official government agencies, typically informing the victim that they need to provide more information before they can receive their stimulus check. Sometimes this takes the form of a direct request for a Social Security number, bank account information, or by getting the victim to click on a suspicious link.
Scammers may also opt to target other sensitive financial issues, including overdue bills, emergency grants, loan programs, or additional stimulus payments. The trick here is to prey on the suspect’s sense of urgency to act; the more urgent the issue, the more likely a victim is to be less skeptical and act faster.
Many scammers focus on getting their victims to divulge their Social Security number, which enables them to commit various kinds of fraud under a stolen identity. This is particularly prevalent during large-scale financial events, making CARES Act stimulus checks for seniors a perfect opportunity.
Thieves will ask recipients to verify sensitive personal information, claiming they need to do so before the victim can cash their stimulus check. These scams usually involve an email that comes from a fake IRS email address or from another government agency, which are easy to spoof and hard to detect.
Never give personal information, such as your Social Security number, unless requested through an official government portal. Government websites end their addresses with .gov exclusively. Any other link without .gov as the last part of the link may be suspect: contact the government agency in question for verification before entering any information (and make sure you find the phone number from a source other than the message you received).
The COVID-19 pandemic has struck small business owners particularly hard, and the CARES Act includes a loan program to help offset some of these financial challenges. Just as scammers try to target individuals’ stimulus checks, so too do they attempt to take advantage of business owners who are interested in the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program.
If you receive an email from the SBA claiming to be in touch about the Paycheck Protection Program—either to verify sensitive financial information or to apply for the program—odds are the message may be related to a scamming attempt. First, SBA-affiliated banks are the sole originators of these loans, so any message coming from a government agency (including the SBA) should be viewed with suspicion. Also, if you did not apply for a loan but receive a message about your application’s status, odds are that the message is coming from nefarious sources. Contact the SBA if you receive any messages that seem suspicious for further information.
Scammers may promise that they can expedite a stimulus payment in exchange for a small processing fee. As many seniors on a fixed income might be eager to receive their stimulus check, the potential for these scams to work is high. There are no fees associated with receiving a stimulus check—be it for expediting payment or otherwise.
Many criminals are also quick to ask their victims to send funds via prepaid debit cards to send back the balance on false overpayments, to expedite their stimulus check, or to be approved for fake additional stimulus checks.
If you or a loved one are worried about finances, particularly with regard to paying for care, know that you have options. Use the Worthright care finance tool to learn more about how you can afford care in retirement.
This is not an exhaustive list of the kinds of scams and fraud out there, as scammers are always changing their tactics to catch their victims off-guard. Most stimulus check scams, as well as other financial scams that target seniors, have several traits in common though. Here are a few of the most common red flags to watch for if you think you might be the target—or victim—of a scamming attempt.
If you paid taxes in 2019, the U.S. government has all the information it needs to issue a stimulus payment. Checks only went out to people who did not file income taxes for 2019, or who chose not to register for direct deposit explicitly for their stimulus payment Any communication asking for personal information to receive a stimulus payment is a red flag.
The IRS, as well as many other government agencies, have explicit policies that official communications always come via the mail. That means the IRS will never call, email, or attempt to contact you through text messages or social media. If you’re approached by a person claiming to be from the IRS or any other government agency through any of the above, odds are you might be communicating with a scammer.
If you’re unsure if the communication you’re receiving is valid, always reach out to the government agency directly. Never use a web address, phone number, or email address provided by the person who contacted you. Always look for a secondary source for a phone number so you don’t end up accidentally speaking with the scammer.
Some scams are remarkably hard to detect. Others? Not so much. Pay close attention to the terminology used in communications relating to your stimulus check or other payments. If a caller or a message doesn’t use the exact terminology for the program they claim to be calling about, you should be wary of proceeding any further with them. Taking time to thoroughly review these communications with a skeptical eye can usually help you determine if there’s a difference in terms between official communications and what you’ve received.
The correct name for the stimulus payment is “economic impact payment.” The IRS will only use this terminology. You can know it is a scam if these terms are used:
Poor spelling and grammar are dead giveaways that something is amiss. The likelihood of encountering an official government message with misspelled words, improper grammar, or other kinds of poor writing skills should set off alarm bells. If the government is reaching out to you with an official document, you can expect what’s written to be accurate and well composed.
There are several methods you can take to protect yourself from would-be scammers. Common sense is the first and best line of defense here: if something feels amiss, it likely is. If you’ve received a call from an unknown number, an email from a person you do not know, or a text message claiming to be from a government agency, trust your gut and don’t respond. You can always reach out to the agency directly to verify the authenticity of a message or caller.
Don’t allow yourself to be rushed into acting hastily—be it by clicking on a suspicious link or providing information over the phone. Even if someone claims you need to act immediately, take steps to double-check that the situation is actually urgent—or even real in the first place. Scammers prey on the sense of urgency that financial and government-related issues can arise within their victims.
No government agency will ever ask you to pay fines, fees, or repayments via prepaid cards, gift cards, money orders, or wire transfers. Anyone who claims to be from a formal government agency that asks for these kinds of payments is almost guaranteed to be a scammer in disguise.
If all else fails, you should always assume that any communication might be a scam. As the old adage goes, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Government agencies are ready and willing to help you determine if you’re the victim of a scam. Never hesitate to look up their official phone number or website tpIf you are ever in doubt, you should assume it is a scam. Go to official websites or call the organizations from a verified source to get more information. Never call or email the number listed in the message.
Seniors are particularly vulnerable targets for scammers, and their tactics are getting more sophisticated over time. Although it’s virtually impossible to stop scam artists from trying to con their victims out of money, it is possible to arm yourself with information on how you can best protect yourself. Trust your gut, keep a skeptical eye, and never hesitate to reach out to verify a person’s identity if they reach out to you out of the blue. Government bodies are ready and willing to help keep you safe from scammers—all you need to do is ask.