Q&A: COVID-19 Scams

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By Sen. Chuck Grassley

Q: How might scammers exploit the pandemic to steal Iowans’ recovery payments?

A: As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, I led negotiations on the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that will deliver direct help to individuals. The public health emergency has led to tremendous economic fall-out, creating financial hardship for tens of millions of Americans. Most American adults, including seniors, will receive a $1,200 payment from the U.S. Treasury. Before the ink was dry on President Trump’s signature, bad actors were cooking up schemes to get their hands on your money and private information. That’s why I reached out to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) to deploy a public awareness campaign and empower Americans to fight fraudsters. Since the dawn of our republic, wrongdoers have targeted government programs to line their pockets at taxpayer expense. It’s particularly reprehensible when they go after government assistance for vulnerable Americans.

Here’s what Iowans need to know. The Treasury Department will start sending direct payments in April. I’m asking all Iowans to do their part and help make sure this money gets in the right hands. Check in with older family members, neighbors and friends. Tell them these three things. First, the real IRS will not call you on the telephone to find out where to send your recovery payment. Second, the IRS will not send emails to taxpayers. Third, the IRS will not offer early check delivery for a fee. Keep in mind that imposters will try any trick in the book to get their hands on your money and personal information. Do not click on an emailed link that says it’s from the IRS. Forward suspicious emails to phishing@irs.gov.

Let me be perfectly clear. The IRS is not going to call, email, text or use social media to find out personal or financial information to send recovery payments. Iowans should visit IRS.gov for more information or contact my office with questions or concerns. For those who suspect they are victims of a coronavirus-related scam, report the issue to the Treasury IG’s website at (https://www.treasury.gov/tigta/contact_report_covid.shtml).

The Social Security Administration (SSA) also is warning older citizens to be on alert for the imposter ruse targeting recovery payments. Callers may say they are from Social Security and offer a benefit increase due to COVID-19. Iowans need to know that Social Security will not offer a benefit increase in exchange for your recovery payment. Scam artists may say there’s a problem with delivery of a coronavirus check and pressure seniors to pay a fee with cash, retail gift cards, pre-paid debit cards or wire transfer to receive their recovery payment. Don’t let a loved one fall into this trap. Report fraud to the Social Security inspector general online at https://secure.ssa.gov/ipff/home. The SSA also issued an advisory that it will not suspend or discontinue benefits when local offices are closed due to the pandemic. Disregard letters asking Social Security recipients to call back and provide personal information about their benefits or recovery payments. Spread the word with your neighbors to help stop these scams.

Q: What coronavirus-related scams are targeting health care providers?

A: Iowa hospitals and nursing home facilities across the state are on the front lines of the pandemic. I’ve reached out to scores of Iowa hospital administrators to check in on their needs as they serve their communities during this public health emergency and in the future. The Trump administration is working to keep scarce medical resources in the U.S. for domestic use. I’ve urged the Department of Justice to take vigorous action to protect Americans from price gouging and prevent hoarding. The global shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) is a feeding ground for criminal enterprise and counterfeit operations to take advantage of the pandemic for profit. The medical community should be wary of counterfeit pharmaceutical products and sanitary products. A global operation called Operation Pangea targets the trafficking of counterfeit medicines. Europol, the law enforcement arm of the European Union, reported that more than 34,000 counterfeit surgical masks were seized March 3-10, 2020, exposing how criminal opportunists are taking advantage of the pandemic and putting public health at risk. The FBI is asking health care administrators to exercise due diligence when dealing with vendors, especially with ones they’ve never worked with in the past. Suspicious activity may include last minute price changes, unusual payment terms and last-minute excuses for delayed shipments. Report suspicious activity or fraud allegations regarding COVID-19 scams to the FBI tip line at tips.fbi.gov. Submit cyber scams and counterfeit product allegations to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov.