Americans lost over $211 million to Covid-19 scams and stimulus payment fraud, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Since January, the agency has received over 275,600 complaints.
While fraud activity is down from the highs recorded earlier in the year, it will likely pick back up now that President Donald Trump has signed the $900 billion pandemic relief package, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021.
That's because the legislation includes provisions for a second round of stimulus payments, up to $600 per individual, including dependent children under age 17, if you're an individual who earned less than $75,000 ($150,000 for those married filing jointly) in 2019. Stimulus payments start to phase out if you earned more than that, stopping completely for those with adjusted gross incomes of $87,000 or more ($174,000 for married couples).
The IRS is expected to initiate direct deposits of stimulus payments before Thursday and send out paper checks and debit cards by Jan. 15. And while Trump signed the relief package slightly later than expected, a senior official told CNBC on Monday that the payments will go out on the same timeline.
Yet the lingering uncertainty surrounding the second round of stimulus payments creates the "the perfect storm for fraudsters trying to make a dishonest dollar," says Ashley Moody, Florida's attorney general. On Monday, Moody's office put out a notice cautioning the public about the increased potential for scams.
"Scammers are always looking for new opportunities, like the passage of another round of federal stimulus, to rip off consumers," Moody says.
Here are five common red flags that experts say could signal a stimulus check scam.
1. Unsolicited calls or emails
Spoofing technology has made it easier than ever for scammers to impersonate anyone, including government agencies. In order to protect yourself, most experts recommend that consumers avoid picking up any calls from unfamiliar phone numbers — let them roll into voicemail for further scrutiny.
"I'd be very wary of any inbound emails or phone calls that are supposedly from the IRS, Treasury Department, a state unemployment benefits agency, etc.," says Ted Rossman, a credit industry analyst with CreditCards.com. If you do get a call or message that you think is from a government agency, initiate a separate means of communication, Rossman says. For instance, call the agency back at a number you trust or is listed on their official site, rather than replying directly to a call or email.
If you do answer a call, and it's about your stimulus payment, keep in mind that U.S. government agencies won't ask you to pay anything up front to receive your funds. "Anyone who does is a scammer," writes Jennifer Leach, associate director for the FTC's division of consumer and business education.
Additionally, government agencies "won't call, text, email, or contact you on social media to ask for your Social Security, bank account or credit card number," Leach says. Again, if you receive messages asking for this information, it's likely a scam.
2. Messages that ask to "verify" or provide information
When it comes to emails and text messages, consumers should be leery of any that have instructions encouraging you to click a link to "request benefit payments," according to the Better Business Bureau. Also be wary of any messages asking you to "verify" your personal information, according to Moody's office.
"The IRS will not call, text or email anyone to verify their information," the Identity Theft Resource Center wrote in a recent blog warning of stimulus check scams.
The BBB Scam Tracker has found that a common stimulus check scam occurs when you receive an email or message asking you to click on a link that takes you to a bogus application to fill out to "make sure you are getting all the payments owed to you." But this is typically just a way for fraudsters to gain your personal details and opens you up to the potential for identity theft, the Bureau wrote in a warning published last week.
3. High-pressure tactics
Another big tipoff that a call or message is from a scammer is if they say that they need sensitive information right away, according to Moody's office. It's usually a red flag if something needs to be done immediately or if there are threats that you'll lose your stimulus payment if immediate action is not taken.
"Take a breather," recommends Ron Schlecht, managing partner at cybersecurity firm BTB Security. Don't allow yourself to be rushed into buying anything or giving away any information, Schlecht told CNBC Make It earlier this year.
4. There's a fee involved
A common scam that popped up during the last round of stimulus checks is fraudsters offering payments faster, or even additional funds, for a small "processing fee" — typically using a prepaid debit or gift card, according to the BBB Scam Tracker.
But the FTC's Leach says there's no such thing as getting your money early, even by paying a fee. "Anyone who says they can hook you up now (or soon) is both lying and a scammer," she says.
There's also been an uptick in cash advance offers at a very high interest rate that adds up to be much higher than the stimulus check, says Quentin Rhoads-Herrera, director of professional services at cybersecurity firm CRITICALSTART.
"If anyone offers a cash advance on your stimulus check, be very aware of the underlying terms and conditions of that offer," says Rhoads-Herrera.
5. Lookalike checks
One of the scams that experts say will likely re-emerge during the second round of stimulus payments is phony checks. "We've seen a lot of scams involving bogus checks that look like government checks in the past year," says Paige Schaffer, CEO of global identity and cyber protection services at Generali Global Assistance
Typically the scam starts when a recipient receives a check and deposits it in their bank account. The fraudsters then reach out and let them know that the amount was incorrect and ask them to return the overpaid funds, Schaffer says. But when the bank completes their review of the check and determines it's fake, the victim is out both the money they were "supposed" to receive and the amount of the "unintended" overage they likely returned, Schaffer says.
To protect yourself, the Better Business Bureau recommends doing your research to make sure the check is real and double check if the government agency or organization issuing the payment actually exists. "Scammers often make up names of agencies and/or grants," warns the BBB.