How scammers are targeting stimulus checks, and how to keep your money safe


Americans are starting to receive their $1,200 stimulus checks, which are meant to help them get by during the coronavirus pandemic. That influx of money is also attracting scammers and con artists.

As of April 14, people have already filed more than 15,000 coronavirus-related complaints, including more than 10,000 categorized as fraud, according to Federal Trade Commission data. Since January, consumers have collectively lost more than $13.4 million to such scams, with a median loss of $558 per person. Nearly 1 in 5 fraud reports involved unsolicited texts or calls, including impostors pretending to be a government entity.

Experts expect that number to jump as the government begins dispersing stimulus money. "With chaos comes an opportune time to take advantage of others," says Seattle-based CFP Jedidiah Collins, who runs the company Rookie to Veteran.

Here's what you need to know to protect yourself and your money from fraud.

How scammers are targeting stimulus checks

Many of the scams are new takes on classic financial scams that use the pandemic and the economic impact payments as a hook. Scammers are hoping that people will be anxious enough about receiving their stimulus money quickly that they will take the bait before looking closely at the details.

Kim Cobb, a financial fraud expert and managing director of Texas-based Little GG Capital, says that most of the scams involve one of three tactics:

  • Fake checks being sent in the mail
  • Impersonators calling on the phone
  • Phishing schemes sent out over text messages, email, and social media platforms

With the fake check ploy, scammers are creating fake stimulus checks for a larger amount than you are supposed to receive. Victims will then be notified that they were overpaid and that they need to send money back in the form of cash, gift cards, or money transfers.

When the fake check bounces, the victim will then be out that money, along with whatever they sent the scammers.

How to spend a stimulus check if you're unemployed

Video by Jason Armesto

Phishing is a digital attempt to trick you by purporting to be someone you know and trust. Scammers who send phishing emails are aiming to collect sensitive personal and financial information, like your Social Security number, bank account number, or login information and password. Impersonators who call pretending to be from an institution like your bank have the same goal. 

Scammers then try to use the information you give them to drain accounts and perpetuate other kinds of fraud and identity theft. 

"Never, ever give out your personal information," Cobb says.

4 red flags to watch out for with stimulus payment scams

Keep these four things in mind so you don't fall prey to fraudsters trying to get your stimulus money.

  1. You don't need to do anything to claim your stimulus payment. "As long as you filed taxes for 2018 and/or 2019, the federal government likely has the information it needs to send you your money," the FTC said in a recent report. That means you won't need to sign up for anything or give anyone personal information. If you want to get your payment quickly, there are some ways to speed up the process, like filing your 2019 tax return and signing up for direct deposit with the IRS.
  2. The IRS isn't going to call or text you about your payment. Ignore any strange phone calls, voicemails, and text messages claiming to be from the IRS or any other government agency regarding your stimulus check. The Federal Communications Commission even has some audio samples of these types of voicemails: You can listen to them so you can recognize one if you hear it. If you want to track your payment, you can do so using the new Get My Payment IRS tool.
  3. You're not getting a "stimulus check" or a "coronavirus payment." Cobb says that a telltale sign you're dealing with a huckster is that they'll use the wrong terms regarding these payments, like "stimulus check" or "coronavirus check." "The official term is 'economic impact payment' — that's what the IRS calls it," she says. "The language matters."
  4. The IRS isn't likely to overpay you. Your economic impact payment is based on your most recent tax return for either 2018 or 2019, and the maximum payment is $1,200 per adult and $500 per child. Experts say that even if your eligibility has changed, it's unlikely you'll have to pay the IRS back when you file your taxes next spring.

In the meantime, be vigilant and trust your instincts. If something feels not quite right, or too good to be true, it might well be a scam. And while fraud occurs all the time, Cobb recommends Americans be particularly wary during the pandemic. Scammers are "dialing it up," Cobb says, because for them, opportunities like this don't come around very often.

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