Online scam artists are preying on people's fear as the coronavirus pandemic stretches into mid-May.
Common COVID-19 scams run the gamut from stealing government stimulus checks, to fake cures and alleged vaccines, to a new twist on the old grandparent scam.
"Con artists are using all of their wits, all of their time to scamming people," said Hannah Stiff, Montana director for the Better Business Bureau (BBB), Northwest & Pacific. "They're putting in the equivalent of a full-time job to scamming people, and they're good at it. The things they do are convincing."
Stiff says as people deal with quarantines, layoffs, and home schooling, they are more vulnerable than ever before.
"People don't have their defenses up. There's a lot going on," said Stiff. "Where we might realize these are scams during normal times, now people are falling for them who probably normally wouldn't."
Not only are there new scams popping up, but old scams are back with a COVID-19 twist, like the grandparent scam.
"They target seniors, telling them their loved one is in the hospital and they need money right away so they can be the lucky person who gets a ventilator," Stiff said. "They prey on fear. A lot of scams are predicated on that fear, and a sense of urgency: Pay now so something terrible doesn't happen."
In addition, the internet is filled with fake COVID-19 tests, cures and alleged vaccines.
"There is no cure for the coronavirus yet. We have no vaccine, there is no pill, no magic potion, no incense, no essential oil that is going to prevent you from getting the coronavirus," said Stiff. "People need to be very wary as these things are popping up all over on social media."
With the federal government sending everyone a stimulus check, rip-off artists are also busy convincing people they can help.
"They pick up the phone and say, 'I can get you that money quicker,'" Stiff said. "If you just pay me a little up-front fee, I'll expedite your check to you. Or they'll say, 'I just need a little more information from you to get you that check. I need your bank account information so I can direct deposit it for you.'"
The BBB has identified several red flags to look for to help people identify a scam.
First, Stiff says if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Scammers also rely on a sense of urgency to try to pressure people to act "right now".
Another warning sign: if you're asked to use a weird form of payment, such as gift cards or money transfers.
And if you can't verify information on a certain website, or if you're never able to speak to a real person on the phone, both are potential signs you are being scammed.
This spring, one of the most common schemes is selling pets online. This popular scam is seeing new life now, as animal shelters report few animals available for adoption. The website pictures are real, but that's about it.
"The person who claims to be a breeder says they're at the airport, and there is an extra fee for a crate, and then there's insurance needed to fly the pet to you," said Stiff. "A lot of people are losing big bucks in this scam. In Montana, we know the median dollar loss for a puppy scam is $551."
The good news is the BBB offers multiple online resources to help consumers become "scam aware". Their scamtracker feature allows people to share their experience, and actually tracks the latest ripoffs in real time.
A common feeling among victims of such scams is embarrassment, feeling they should have known better. That, according to Stiff, points to the importance of alerting authorities and reporting scam attempts to the BBB, so they can spread the word and help others from falling victim.
Consumers can also report price gouging to the Better Business Bureau. Price gouging is defined as "outrageous pricing to take advantage of a crisis." Any price increase more than 15 percent is illegal and should be reported, said Stiff. Since January, price-gouging complaints to the BBB have increased by a whopping 279 percent.
Social Security scams also continue to make the rounds. Stiff said people need to know the Social Security Administration (SSA) does not call people.
"First of all if its an unknown caller, don't pick up," said Stiff. "But, if you do and it's someone who says they're from the SSA saying they need your Social Security number, that's a scam. Don't fall for it. If you are receiving Social Security benefits, they already have the information they need."
Finally, Stiff stressed that the ultimate test for many people is, if it doesn't feel right, go with your gut feeling.
"Does it feel right? We know that people are smart and they're typically very savvy consumers," said Stiff. "So take a minute and feel that squishy feeling in your stomach. If it's there, chances are the person on the other end of the computer is a con artist trying to get ahold of your information."