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FBI details new methods of fraud born amid the pandemic

 

Last updated 4/22/2020 at 11:44am



The FBI held a Skype call with local media Tuesday, to provide details on the recent increase in fraud amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We want to do everything we can to make the public aware of the some of the scams that are going on, and make sure public is being as vigilant as they can during the pandemic,” Special Agent Drew Scown said.

Scown said scammers have been using the fear surrounding the pandemic to commit fraud against people throughout the U.S.

He said common methods of fraud people should watch out for during the pandemic include scam products, charity fraud and fraudsters trying to get personal information, often by impersonating government agencies.

“The FBI is seeing instances of COVID-19 testing and treatment schemes,” Scown said.

He said the agency has seen scammers attempting to sell fake COVID-19 test kits to frightened people as well as fake cures through phone of email. He urged the public to be extremely wary of anyone asking for personal information — bank information, Social Security number, etc. — via these, or any means.

“One other issue the FBI has encountered nationally is counterfeit goods,” Scown said.

He said fraudsters are selling items like hand sanitizer or masks that end up being fake. He encouraged people to go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website to find lists of reputable products.

Scown said there has also been an increase of fake charity scams that have cropped up around the country.

“Americans are generous and good people who want to help those in need, and often that involves donating to charity,” he said, “Unfortunately there are folks who are willing to use that generosity we have as Americans and try to steal from those that are willing to help.”

He said people should take the time to research the charities they are thinking of donating to, and to be especially wary of charities that have only recently been formed.

Scown also said crowdfunding has become a favored method of fraudsters due to its relative lack of oversight.

Scown also said people should be aware of what a “money mule” is, and how to avoid being tricked into becoming one by scammers.

“A money mule is someone who is recruited by a fraudster to receive funds for the fraudster and send that money to the bad guy,” Scown said.

He said this is kind of recruitment is particularly popular among overseas fraudsters, because they know that Americans are going to be more wary of sending money to other countries.

He said people recruited as money mules are often asked to do legal activities at first, and don’t know that they’ve been recruited into a scam.

Scown said if anyone suspects they have become a money mule they should call law enforcement agencies including the FBI to help them get out of those situations.

He also said the FBI is anticipating a problem of fraud relating to CARES Act stimulus checks. He reminded the public that government agencies will never call asking for personally identifying information, and if someone doing that is claiming to be from an agency like the FBI or IRS, they are likely a fraudster.

Scown encouraged members of the public to verify the identity of callers by contacting the agency they claimed to be a part of and making sure they really work there.

Michael Pickett, supervisor of the white-collar crime squad in the FBI’s Salt Lake City office, said that while Montana and the surrounding states haven’t seen the dramatic increase in fraud that has been seen elsewhere in the U.S. he’s hoping that informing the public will help the FBI get out ahead of fraudsters.

“We found that as we are more proactive and provide education and awareness, we are hopefully be able to prevent crime before it happens instead of investigating it after the fact,” Pickett said.

He said the last few years has seen online scammers increasingly making use of crypto currencies.

He said fraudsters will often attempt to blackmail individuals claiming to have information on them that they will release to the public or their family if they do not pay them. They often demand crypto currency because of its anonymity and because it’s difficult to track.

However, Pickett said, there is a new way fraudsters of this type are blackmailing people.

“Now, not only is the fraudster threatening to divulge personal information, but they are threatening to infect the victim or the victim’s family with COVID-19 unless the payments are made,” he said.

He also said there has been an increase in investment fraud related to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, and people should look out for high-pressure tactics used by supposed investment firms as this can be a red flag.

Pickett said there has also been an increase in business email fraud. This when scammers will impersonate or spoof an email address and attempt to convince people who handle a company’s finances to make wire transfers of money that end up being fraudulent. He said this has become particularly common with companies that make and sell personal protective equipment, and three to four billion dollars has already been lost.

Pickett said even state governments have been defrauded this way.

He said people can help avoid being scammed by keeping security software on their devices up to date, being careful of what they download and turning of their computers at night.

Pickett said people are sometimes hesitant to report suspected fraud, because it would mean admitting to themselves that they lost money to a scammer.

“They believe if they report it that officially makes it a victim and a crime has been committed, but if they don’t report it there’s still hope,” he said.

Pickett said the FBI will always do what they can to help victims of fraud, but a lot of the money lost can’t be recovered. But he said the sooner someone reports the incident the better their chances are of mitigating financial damage.

 

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