Robocall scammers prey on COVID-19 concerns

Phone scam
Virus-related scams include fake offers for free test kits and HVAC cleaning. (Getty Images)

While daily life seems to be changing quickly for many Americans as the country works to slow the spread of COVID-19, one unfortunate aspect that remains intact is the presence of harmful and nuisance robocall scams.

Now it appears opportunistic robocallers have turned their attention to scams and hoax text messages that prey on fears related to the ongoing coronavirus public health emergency. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Friday put out a consumer warning and launched a webpage to alert consumers and provide tips on avoiding virus-related scams.

The FCC has received reports of scam robocalls that include fake offers for things like free home testing kits in an effort to steal personal and health insurance information, and fraudulent HVAC duct cleaning services to “protect” homes from the virus.

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Robocallers also appear to be targeting higher risk diabetes patients, promising a free COVID-19 test kit and free diabetic monitor, according to the FCC. In addition, scam text messages and calls have been reported that advertise fake cures and request payment over the phone.

The FCC has sample audio of some of these phone scams as well as hoax texts on their website, so consumers know what to look out for, which is available here.  

“We’re tracking scams and sharing information to arm consumers about how imposters use spoofing and other tactics to steal their money and their identity,” said Patrick Webre, chief of the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, in a statement. “The FCC fights these types of scams through enforcement of its rules, but our primary goal is to be proactive so Americans don’t fall victim to these bad actors.” 

The FCC also cited a concerning hoax text message that has been making its way around and claims the government is going to order a two-week mandatory quarantine nationwide and urges people to stock up on supplies – messages can appear to come from “a next door neighbor” or someone consumers know. The FCC stresses not to click any links in suspicious text messages and to call friends to verify they sent a message if something looks out of character (a technique known as spoofing can make it look as though a call or text comes from a known and legitimate number).

The National Security Council on March 15 tweeted that these text messages are fake and that disinformation about the supposed national lockdown is being spread online.

NBC Boston, citing three unnamed U.S. officials, reported that the government had started to confront what the sources said “was a deliberate effort by a foreign entity to sow fears of a nationwide quarantine amid the virus outbreak,” though did not name which entity.

While the national quarantine message is a hoax, numerous states have ramped up restrictions in hopes of clamping down on the pandemic, including Illinois on Friday, which ordered residents to stay home for nonessential activity. That joins California’s decision to implement a shelter-in-place order, while New York ordered nonessential workers to stay home.  

In terms of coronavirus-related robocalls and scams, the World Health Organization (WHO) last month also issued a warning about criminals seizing on the pandemic crisis to steal money and sensitive personal information. It urged individuals to verify authenticity of any calls or texts from people purporting to be from WHO and seeking donations.

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Lastly, the U.S. government may legitimately take the step of issuing checks directly to consumers during the health crisis, but the FCC warned against scams that could arise in that situation.

“If that happens, no one [FCC emphasis added] will call or text you to verify your personal information or bank account details in order to ‘release the funds’,” the FCC’s website states.

Even before the rapidly evolving COVID-19 pandemic arose, the FCC and federal government had been taking steps to combat the deluge of robocalls. Congress passed the TRACED Act in December with bipartisan support to take stronger measures in the fight against robocalls. President Trump signed the anti-robocall measures into law early this year. This month the FCC will vote on its proposal to require voice service providers implement STIR/SHAKEN call authentication technology in their networks, after having already directed them to do so voluntarily last year.