COLORADO SPRINGS — The fear and uncertainty that surrounds the COVID-19 pandemic has opened the door to scammers and fraudsters who are cashing in. Officials report they've stolen millions of dollars. News5 has been tracking this from the start and is working with a financial crimes expert to help you protect your information and the money you can't afford to lose.
As we work to rebound from the isolation and financial impact of COVID-19, the last thing you need is someone making your life more difficult. Unfortunately, coronavirus-related scams are still on the rise which means people are taking the bait, losing sensitive information and having their bank accounts drained.
Take a look at these official Federal Trade Commission numbers: https://www.ftc.gov/coronavirus/enforcement/complaint-data
Through the month of May, there were more than 60,000 complaints and losses tallying more than $44 million nationwide. It's evidence fraudsters are cranking up their attacks. That's a $40 million increase since the feds started coronavirus scam tracking back in March.
"This is what I call the tsunami, the perfect storm," said Criminal Justice Program Chair for Colorado State University Global J. Michael Skiba.
Skiba also goes by "Dr. Fraud" because of his experience and expertise in financial crimes. He is working with News5 to track coronavirus-related scams and to help us understand why we are all at risk.
"At the end of the day there is such a commonality with all of us at this specific moment that we all could be targets," said Skiba. "No matter what level of government or wherever you are in Colorado or in the world. I mean there still is a degree of vulnerability even the most remote person on an island somewhere in the Caribbean there is still something there that can make them listen a little bit further."
One of the ways people have continued to access healthcare during the pandemic has been through the use of telemedicine and virtual visits. Since it's a relatively new service, sly fraudsters are stealing from both doctors and patients.
"They will get that doctor's personal information from the web or data in some form and what they'll do actually is they'll write a fake prescription with a fake patient and send in the bill," said Skiba.
The scammers are also willing to impersonate law enforcement. The person on the phone will tell you they are with the police department and need to verify your personal information because they are sending you a check that they've recovered that belongs to you.
"What they are doing quite often is they are saying hey we have this check, or your uncle or your aunt was trying to get a hold of you and they couldn't. Can we just verify some of your information and then we'll deliver it, And then you are thinking is it risky for me to do that? I don't know," said Skiba.
The experts say there's a good chance cyber criminals are already making a fortune off of us without us even knowing. As millions are out of work and struggling because of COVID-19 the crooks are working to gain access to our personal information and it's making them rich.
"Let's say they get a name, address, and date of birth on you, I mean they can sell that on the black market for cash on the on the black market for $300 to $500," said Skiba. "There's a scale. If they can get that an a social security number and a few other details that can go for some serious cash on the black market."
Have any interest in a smartphone app that can help you track COVID-19 and who has it? Cybercriminals are banking on it.
"They're just free download so they're not looking for, you know, your 99 cents [or] $5.99 to download the app. Once you download it you are giving them access to everything that is on your phone. I mean think about giving a criminal your phone for 10 seconds," said Skiba. There is so much information, photos, addresses, GPS we could go on for hours of all the Intel that they can gain."
When it comes to smartphone apps, just be careful who you trust.
"So definitely be forewarned about any type of app or something that's an add on to your phone because what they're doing is once they get access to that personal information it is a very significant threat," said Skiba.
If you are able to identify you've been targeted by a coronavirus scam it's easy to just ignore it and move on, but the experts say the key to fighting these types of crimes is to report them. The more fraud and scam reports there are. It helps prosecutors and law enforcement to allocate resources in this fight.
Here is the link to report scams to the FTC: https://www.ftc.gov/coronavirus/scams-consumer-advice
Report scams to the Colorado Attorney General's Office: https://stopfraudcolorado.gov/