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Scammers see COVID-19 as an opportunity

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One of the common ways scammers get people to fall for their tricks is by stirring up emotions — anger, panic, excitement, anything to make unsuspecting victims venture away from rational thought.

What a gift, then, COVID-19 has been to scammers because there are new realities — a global pandemic and resulting financial collapse — to take advantage of.

“The fraudsters follow the headlines,” Todd Kossow, director of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Midwest Region, said during a recent virtual conference about scams that target diverse communities.

What’s been in the headlines lately? Skyrocketing unemployment, constant updates about a potential treatment or vaccine for COVID-19, stories of people struggling to make ends meet.

One scam related to COVID-19 is people who pretend to be contact tracers. They ask for money, financial information, a Social Security number and immigration status. They might contact people with fraudulent links or downloads.

A real contact tracer will only ask for your name, address, health information and places you’ve visited recently.

Another scam involves individual people or companies trying to sell treatments for COVID-19 with no proof that they really work. If there is actually a medical breakthrough, it’s very unlikely you will hear about it for the first time from an ad or sales pitch.

Yet another scam involves sending fake stimulus checks to people for more than $1,200 (the amount determined by Congress) and then ask for money back.

“The impact is huge because most of the time it’s low-income people who are exploited by this,” Rev. David Greene, pastor at Purpose of Life Ministries, said at the conference.

An FTC database has received more than 1,000 reports of scams related to COVID-19 in Indiana, resulting in more than $100,000 lost, Kossow said.

One way to figure out if you’re dealing with a scammer is to consider how they want to be paid. If they want you to wire money, get a gift card or use a crypto currency such as Bitcoin, it could be because those methods of payment are difficult to track.

Whether you’ve caught on to a scam before it took your money or you’re thousands of dollars in the hole, it’s important to report scams. Not only does it give government agencies and other watchdogs a better idea of what the trends in scamming are, but if there’s ever money to distribute from that case, the FTC will use its database to figure out who gets that money, according to Andrew Johnson, a consumer education specialist with the FTC.

File a complaint to the FTC by visiting ftc.gov/complaint. You can also file a complaint to the Better Business Bureau (BBB) at bbb.org/scamtracker/reportscam.

Data suggest African American and Hispanic communities are underreporting fraud, even though those same communities experience fraud at a higher rate than whites.

A 2016 report from the FTC showed there are fewer complaints per 100,000 people in areas that are predominantly African American, compared to areas that are predominantly white, though the rates are about the same for areas that are almost all African American or white.

The rates are worse in areas that are predominantly or almost all Hispanic.

Part of the reason for low complaint rates could be simple mistrust in government. The FTC and BBB know this (although the BBB is not a government agency) and have tried building relationships with organizations and faith leaders who have more credibility in the community.

The BBB doesn’t take anonymous complaints, but the FTC does.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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