April Fool’s Day is synonymous with practical jokes and good-natured hoaxes. While most people accept the light-hearted nature of April Fool’s Day and laugh along with the practical jokes, April 1 should also serve as a reminder to remain vigilant against the much more serious hoaxes we are all subject to on a regular basis. There is decidedly nothing humorous about being targeted by a hoax or scam that can jeopardize your family’s security or finances.
The current COVID-19 situation makes it even more imperative that we remain wary of dangerous scams and hoaxes as the unknown nature of the virus and the social angst it generates provides a perfect scenario for scammers looking to take advantage of fearful individuals. Be aware of two common ingredients present in most scams: opportunity and urgency. This is presently visible as fear of the COVID-19’s spread creates a natural “urgency” for action that a scammer responds to with a corresponding “opportunity.” Heightened public interest in the virus, for example, has allowed scammers to develop COVID-19 tracking applications and maps meant to appear legitimate while infecting your computer or phone with malware. Yes, it’s sadly ironic, but a fascination or concern with the COVID-19 virus could very well cause you to contract a technology virus.
Like other computer intrusion scams, the technology scam uses a combination of fear and lack of technical knowledge to gain access to a device. In other cases, unsuspecting individuals may receive a phone call from someone claiming to be a representative of a well-known tech company. They’ve commonly “discovered” a problem or risk with your device and can complete a fix or upgrade remotely if you give them access to your computer. Companies do not proactively determine if your computer has issues remotely. Customers who have waited on hold or in-person for tech support can only wish they received that type of individualized attention. Never allow unsolicited callers access to your computer.
Scams that cater to an individual’s penchant for opportunism often include lottery, sweepstakes, and inheritance scams. These scams make a promise of money but are often contingent upon the payment of fees or the provision of personal information. If you are legally entitled to money, you will not have to pay fees to get it. A current opportunism scam specifically seeking to take advantage of COVID-19 concerns offers free smartphones to help people cope with the necessity of social distancing while really trying to gain compromising personal information in the process. Generally speaking, if an offer appears too good to be true, it probably is.
Perhaps the most recognizable example of an opportunism scam is the long-running Nigerian Prince Scam. This scam cleverly masks opportunism with a sense of justice or compassion. As Michael Scott declared in an episode on The Office:
“When the son of the deposed king of Nigeria emails you directly, asking for your help, you help.”
Charity scams and grandparent (or needy relative) scams both try to capitalize off of an individual’s generosity or trust in a non-profit organization. Be wary of charities or “family” soliciting help in the wake of a public crisis or natural disaster, and take time to verify the legitimacy of any organization or individual to whom you send money. UK officials recently uncovered a scam that involved fake Red Cross workers selling illegitimate COVID-19 home testing kits, so even when presented with the name of a valid non-profit, it is prudent to exercise caution. Requests for alternative currencies (such as cryptocurrencies) are virtually an automatic indication that you are dealing with a scammer. There is not a benefit for a charity to receive bitcoin over cash.
If you’ve been the target of a scam, don’t take the attack personally and don’t compound the problem with an additional lapse of judgment. Scammers will circle back to vulnerable individuals after an initial hoax to pose as law enforcement or identity protection agencies. Report any compromised information to the appropriate authority. Depending on the severity of the scam or information that was compromised, this may include your financial advisor, a financial institution, law enforcement, Social Security Administration, credit boroughs, Federal Trade Commission, State attorney’s Office, or the business the scammer posed as. Protect yourself and others as much as you can from COVID-19, stay healthy, and let the month of April serve as a reminder not to get played for a fool.