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Surge of scams predicted around stimulus check payments during COVID-19, coronavirus pandemic

The Superintendent of the Maine Bureau of Financial Institutions warns about scammers going after coronavirus, COVID-19 payments from the government.

GARDINER, Maine — Federal stimulus checks are only a few weeks away. For the unemployed, the weeks tend to feel like months. On March 27, Congress enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) to pump $2 trillion back into the economy. For individuals tax filers with adjusted gross income up to $75,000, it means $1,200 in a direct payment from the Internal Revenue Service. Married couples filing jointly making under $150,000 will receive $2,400, with an additional $500 per child.

The IRS and Treasury Department said to expect the automatic payments in about three weeks. With no action required for most people, the Maine Bureau of Financial Institutions wants to make sure if someone contacts you by phone, email, or text to be vigilant, so you can protect the money from falling into the hands of a scammer.

Superintendent Lloyd LaFountain warned Mainers Monday of fraudsters phishing for your direct payment. LaFountain said to hang up the phone, and don't open or click on links to avoid malware or other harmful software.

“Unfortunately, scammers will very likely try to exploit the program to engage in ID theft and to defraud innocent people of their payments. Everyone is reminded to remain vigilant during the current crisis and be wary of any requests for personal information,” said LaFountain.

LaFountain said you should never provide personal account information or other personal information to anyone and that government agencies, financial institutions, and other legitimate organizations will not contact you by phone, email or text.

BRINGING SCAMS TO LIGHT

"We are going to see scammers try to encourage you that they have a faster way for you to get your money," said LaFountain. "There is no one out there that can expedite the process for you. They may encourage you to pay a fee and they'll provide you with the service or may ask you for personal information or account information to help expedite the process. There is no magic bullet. You have to wait until the U.S. Treasury hits the send button to your account."

COVID-19 SCAMS 

PAYCHECK PROTECTION PROGRAM LOAN

The Paycheck Protection Program loan is designed to help small business employers keep their employees paid and employed during the COVID-19 pandemic. It's part of a $377 billion section of the $2 trillion funding package signed into U.S. law.

Scammers are now demanding payment from people who apply for these loans, but Sen. Susan Collins' administration is spreading the message that there is no application fee.

Additionally, if employers can maintain their payroll, then the portion of the loan that is used for eligible payroll costs and other expenses will be forgiven.

FAKE COVID-19 TEST KITS

Some scammers are making calls to offer free coronavirus testing kits. In exchange, they will ask for personal information and health insurance details. 

Sen. Collins is part of a bipartisan group of Senators, asking the Federal Trade Commission to help protect seniors from the growing number of coronavirus-related scams. This group says that some scammers will also come to seniors' homes to administer fake tests, while charging them and taking their social security numbers.

PAYMENT FOR COVID-19 VACCINE

Additionally, some scammers have been calling people, saying that a vaccine for COVID-19 is ready, when in reality, it does not exist yet. Others ask for money in advance, telling people that in order to get the vaccine when it comes out, they must pay now.

You should not listen to requests asking you to contribute to a fund to help develop a vaccine. If you receive a "secret" call, email, or text about a government vaccine available to only you and a few others, it's too good to be true. 

DONATIONS TO CHARITABLE ORGANIZATIONS

Scammers know that in times like these, many people want to help others. Unfortunately, this is something they may take advantage of in an effort to rip people off. 

Be cautious if you get a call from someone claiming to be from a charitable organization, asking for donations via mail, wire transfer, or gift cards. This includes calls from people who say they are collecting money to buy things like personal protective equipment for local law enforcement. 

Sheriff Troy Morton with the Penobscot County Sheriff's Office says that law enforcement officials will never directly call homes asking for donations.

WHO IS MOST AT RISK?

This period is a particularly vulnerable time for all Americans, since we are navigating a lot of unknowns.

"Mainers have signed up for unemployment for the very first time in their lives these past few weeks," Sheriff Morton expressed. "That's the time when they might not know, 'Well, is this going to come by the Internet? Are they going to call my home? How do I get this done?'"

The elderly population is also still at high-risk for these scams, particularly because of the social distancing that COVID-19 requires.

"(The risk is) even more serious during this pandemic when we are prohibited from visiting our loved ones for fear of exposing them to the virus," Sen. Collins explained.

HOW TO AVOID SCAMS

To avoid scams, try not to entertain scammers longer than you need to. For example, Sheriff Morton says that if you have doubts about who you're speaking with on the phone, you should take down their information and do some research before deciding whether to call them back. You should not feel as though you are under any pressure to do so. The best option is to just hang up. 

If you suspect you have been scammed, please reach out. Senator Collins recommends calling her Committee's Fraud Hotline at 1-855-303-9470. By reaching out, you may be able to recover some of the money or information you accidentally gave up before it's too late.

At NEWS CENTER Maine, we're focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the illness. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: /coronavirus

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