There’s another scourge spreading across the U.S., and this one may have even more significant and long-term financial ramifications for you. Scammers are using the confusion brought on by the pandemic, and the subsequent lockdown of many areas around the country, to go after everything from stimulus checks to your identity.
Follow these tips from our experts to find out what you can do to shield your money and yourself from identity theft.
Protect your info
The global effects of the pandemic have wreaked havoc on the economy. Because of this, many people have been left without income for months. Steve Sexton, financial consultant and CEO of Sexton Advisory Group, says this has created a perfect environment for scammers. “They capitalize on this uncertainty and fear, whether it’s false promises of expediency with a PPP loan or phishing attacks designed to target your stimulus check and other sensitive information.”
To keep your money and information safe, he suggests the following:
- Be wary of calls from people claiming to be the IRS, FDIC, SBA, or other government organizations—the real folks prefer snail mail to electronic communication. Anyone messaging or calling you and claiming to be from one of these organizations is likely fraudulent, so don’t share any of your personal information with them or click on any links. Unfortunately, many scammers are taking advantage of the slow disbursement of stimulus checks and sending out messages with prompts like “click here to get your money now.” Clicking these links can provide identity thieves with access to your information (like your social security number and bank account info), which then can be used to steal your identity, money, or both.
- Sign up for credit monitoring, which can help alert you to unexpected or suspicious changes or updates to your credit.
- If you’re replacing any of your devices, make sure you do a factory reset before getting rid of them, since many of them have saved your personal info to the hard drive. And this goes for your printer too. Every document you’ve ever printed or copied is stored on your printer’s hard drive (yikes!).
- If something has your legal name, date of birth, or Social Security Number on it, it should be thoroughly shredded when you’re done with it. This goes for documents, mail, and anything that can end up in somebody else’s hands.
- Never email tax documents—these should only be shared via secure portals or hard copies. If your state requires you to send these documents to apply for unemployment, make sure you’re using their official portal and not an email address to do so.
- Beware of fake coronavirus sites. Visiting these sites (which often try to get you to click on a link that promises to tell you the name of someone you know who has been exposed to the virus) exposes you to embedded malware that can steal anything stored in your browser, like usernames, passwords, credit card numbers, and other sensitive information.
If something seems off, act quickly
Even if you do everything right, you can still fall victim to identity theft. If you suspect someone’s gotten a hold of your personal info, Sexton says the first call you should make is to the three credit rating agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) to ask them to put a freeze on your credit. “Then, if you’re certain that your identity has been stolen, notify the U.S. Postal Inspection Service to ensure your address isn’t getting changed without your knowledge.” After that, you should call the police to file a police report and notify your creditors.
Be vigilant when it comes to charitable donations
Sadly, if scammers can’t get your info any of those ways, they may try even more duplicitous tactics.
“Right now, scammers are preying on the goodwill of others by asking for donations to fake non-profit organizations,” says Valerie Moses, a senior relationship manager with Addition Financial. “If you choose to donate, you should verify the charity’s legitimacy on CharityNavigator or CharityWatch, and donate directly through the organization’s website rather than through a link you received via email.”
And if you’ve been communicating through email, double check the “to” field on emails you’re receiving to make sure it’s not coming from a spoofed contact.
“When in doubt, reach back out to the company directly using contact information from their official website,” she says.