Scammers are racing to take advantage of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
From phony grants to masks that never arrive and maybe never existed in the first place, scams both old and new are proliferating, said Michelle Gleba, regional director at the Better Business Bureau. She spoke Thursday during an class hosted by the Callaway Chamber of Commerce on spotting scams.
Gleba said scammers commonly pretend to be someone you trust, create a sense of urgency or try to "fly under the radar," exploiting common business practices.
"All these tactics are things scammers are continuing to use to target businesses (and consumers) during pandemic," she said.
Based on the BBB's data, the average victim is 35-54 years old and loses around $80, she added, though people of all ages are susceptible. Since March, 14 percent of scams reported to the BBB have been COVID-19-themed or related.
The BBB is a nonprofit with a self-described focus on "advancing marketplace trust." Its services include providing business profiles, charity information, scam warnings, advertising reviews, surveys and more.
Some scams currently on the rise are COVID-19-specific.
In one, the scammer pretends to be with the Small Business Administration and claims the scam target is eligible for a grant. The application is simple and requests banking and business information. After sending the application in, the business owner is "approved" and asked to pay a processing fee.
"They end up not getting the loan at all," Gleba said. "I encourage businesses to make sure they're dealing with a legitimate government website. Most end with '.gov.'"
Other times, they'll pretend to be with the IRS, getting into contact about an economic impact payment.
Another scam targets businesspeople and customers alike with text messages from someone purporting to be with the World Health Organization or Centers for Disease Control. They'll offer free coronavirus testing or claim you've been in contact with someone who's tested positive. By responding, even just to unsubscribe, you let the scammer know they've reached a number that's currently in use.
Governmental bodies don't generally use texting or social media to get into contact, so be suspicious of any messages coming through those channels. Receiving government grants shouldn't require paying a processing fee, either.
Another is the medical equipment scam, where the scammer offers to sell you personal protective equipment or other hard-to-find items. Sometimes the items are marked up sky-high; other times, they're deeply discounted.
"Once you pay for these items, they vanish with that money, and you end up never getting the PPE you so desperately need," Gleba said.
Either that, or the items that arrived aren't what you thought you were ordering.
She recommended doing your own research on any business that offers to sell you PPE. Sometimes scammers pretend to be with a legitimate business, so before saying "yes," contact the business through a phone number or email listed on its website and make sure they're actually the ones who you've been communicating with. Also, be wary if the supplier requests any last-minute changes to the order or how you pay.
A third scam focuses less on getting money and more on wreaking havoc. It's called "Zoom Bombing." That's when people who weren't invited invade and disrupt a meeting.
"It's something that's occurred during this pandemic over and over again," Gleba said.
Sometimes the invading people hurl racist slogans or other abuse. To make your meeting more secure, create a unique meeting ID, avoid sharing the ID on social media, require attendees to input a password, lock the meeting after it starts and turn off screen-sharing for everyone but the host.
On the customer-facing side, there are a bevy of fraudulent offers of miracle cures, medical masks, test kits, the chance to donate to a charity and more. Price gouging — charging extra for in-demand items — is also rampant, despite being illegal. Gleba encouraged always doing your own research into both the company/charity and offer and double-checking the BBB's website to see if it's a known scam. BBB's scam tracker can be viewed at bbb.org/scamtracker.
Some scams being reported to the BBB were common before the pandemic but are simply being perpetrated more frequently. Training staff to be on the lookout is key.
"These are targeted year-round, but they're important to keep in mind with so many of us working at home," Gleba said.
One such scam is the fake invoice, in which the scammer sends a falsified, but convincing, bill for items the business never actually purchased.
"Usually when they send these fake invoices, they're for very common things, things that as a small business you probably order all the time anyway — office supplies, maybe it's web services," Gleba said. "They're expecting you to pay the bill without asking questions."
She recommended creating a process for inspecting invoices and matching payments to expenses.
Sometimes the scammer will target a CEO, IT, the head of HR or another higher-up by spoofing the sender's email domain so it looks like the message originated from within the company. They'll ask the target to wire some money, pay a fake invoice or send employees' W-2 information or other sensitive data.
"It's a sophisticated scam — many times the emails look valid," Gleba said. "Scammers are spending time stalking the company, getting to know how your emails normally look. A lot of high-profile figures have been victimized by this scam and lost quite a bit."
Before replying to the request, a recipient should check in with supposed sender directly, perhaps over the phone or in person. Gleba also suggested setting up a secret passphrase to invoke when requesting sensitive information. An email lacking that phrase should be viewed with skepticism.
Another scam targets computers. A pop-up will appear claiming a virus has been detected on the computer and will direct the user to download an anti-virus software or call a number for help. But if you download the software or hand over control of your computer to the fake tech support, they'll steal your data and possibly hold control of your computer hostage.
Scammers may also reach out to the recently unemployed with too-good-to-be-true or vague job offers. Sometimes they'll demand money before you start working — something no legitimate employer should do. Again, researching is key.
One old scam has even gotten a COVID-19-themed makeover: pet scams. A huge percentage of pet listings online are fake, according to the BBB.
"It's a scam that's been around for years," Gleba said. "You might see pet online, pay for it and never receive the pet at all. During the pandemic, we think many people may find comfort with getting a pet. Scammers are trying to take advantage of situation, using a COVID-19 twist."
The seller will cite social distancing requirements, forcing you to go through the purchase process without ever getting to see the pet in person. Then they'll charge extra money to get the pet shipped to you safely.
Most who fall victim to the fake pet scam are in their 20s and 30s and lose $100-$1,000.
Gleba advised never buying a pet without meeting it first. Also, make sure to reverse-image search any pictures of the pet the seller provides. You can do so by going to images.google.com and dragging and dropping the picture into the search bar. If it shows up elsewhere online — perhaps on a rescue site, on another seller's website or defunct listing or on someone's social media page — it's probably a phony listing.
Anyone who falls victim to a scam can report it to the BBB at BBB.org/scamtracker and to the Missouri Attorney General at ago.mo.gov.