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Adding insult to injury: Spike in Covid-19 robocalls & fraud pushing Americans over the edge

Adding insult to injury: Spike in Covid-19 robocalls & fraud pushing Americans over the edge
From phony positive Covid-19 test results to deceptive offers of financial relief, robocalls have proliferated amid the pandemic, separating Americans from millions of precious dollars at a time when few can afford to lose money.

As if locked-down Americans don’t have enough to worry about, robocalls have exploded in frequency, afflicting 91 percent of respondents in a survey published on Tuesday by retirement community Provision Living. One in four have noticed a spike in calls specifically since the pandemic began, with one in five reporting Covid-19 as the topic of the call. The majority – 65 percent – of respondents say they get at least one of the irritating calls every day.

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One particularly nasty scam sees the target receive a text or phone call warning them they’ve been exposed to the virus, tricking them into providing personal information while in a state of panic. Another cruel variant dangles the possibility of virus-related financial relief if they just give up their bank account details or wire the scammer a small “fee” – a tempting prospect at a time when half of American workers are unlikely to see a paycheck this month and upwards of 36 million have filed for unemployment since the pandemic began. Phony treatments – in which the target orders a miracle cure, only to never receive it  – comprise some 22 percent of coronavirus-related robocalls, making them the most common pandemic scam.

Even those who haven’t been personally scammed by a robocaller have experienced stress because of them, Provision found; 70 percent of millennials are concerned a parent or grandparent will be preyed upon by the automated scammers, who frequently impersonate government authorities like the Social Security Administration or the Internal Revenue Service in order to con their targets out of bank account information or other personal data. In fact, nearly two in five robocalls (39 percent) claim to be the SSA, with 38 percent impersonating the IRS and 33 percent pretending to be debt collectors.

The Covid-19 scams are apparently quite effective, robbing Americans of over $13.4 million of their hard-earned cash in the first three months of 2020 alone, according to the Federal Trade Commission. That number doesn’t include scams that haven’t been discovered by their victims, or those that go unreported to the FTC – meaning the real figure is likely much higher.

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Given the uncharted territory Americans are navigating – novel experiences like being tested for the virus and, soon, undergoing contact-tracing – scamming opportunities are legion amid the pandemic. Robocallers particularly have their eyes on the millions of $1,200 stimulus payments sent out over the past two months. Nevertheless, Covid-19-related fraud is a tiny portion of the $432.4 million in fraud the FTC documented from January through March.

There was a brief lull in scammer activity – robocall-prevention service YouCall reported a 30 percent monthly drop in robocalls in April – but the firm acknowledged the calls were already rising rapidly by the end of last month, and they seem to have returned to normal volume, if the Provision survey is any indication. YouCall had credited the global Covid-19 economic shutdowns – which shuttered call centers in countries like India and Philippines, where workers are less likely to be able to continue their work from home on laptops – with the decline. But those workers are apparently coming back to their offices now, even as Americans remain largely at home, sitting ducks waiting for their smartphones to ring.

While the FTC has a ‘do not call’ registry for people looking to avoid the nuisance communications, 23 percent of respondents told Provision they get the calls anyway, and 18 percent have even changed their number because the volume of calls was overwhelming.

With the added stresses of the pandemic piling on top of the annoyance of receiving scam phone calls at all hours of the day (54 percent have been robocalled after 9pm!), some 37 percent of those queried have lost their temper, swore, or yelled at a robocaller, perhaps hoping there’s a human on the line somewhere to absorb their frustration.

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