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Kokua Line: Scammers stop at nothing to exploit coronavirus pandemic fears

Scam attempts exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout are rising, with would-be thieves lying about government benefits, peddling bogus tests or even threatening to infect people. Here are some that Kokua Line readers asked about this week:

Question: Will I lose Social Security because of the virus? I got a message that I must call right away.

Answer: No, don’t return the call. Social Security benefits are being dispersed by mail or direct deposit as usual, according to the U.S. Social Security Administration. “Social Security will not suspend or decrease Social Security benefit payments or Supplemental Security Income payments due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Any communication you receive that says SSA will do so is a scam, whether you receive it by letter, text, email, or phone call,” the U.S. Office of the Inspector General warned. Read more at ssa.gov/coronavirus.

This scam exploits the fact that Social Security offices are closed to in-person visits. However, work continues behind the scenes.

Q: Do I have to fill out the census to get the stimulus check?

A: No. This falsehood is spreading through a text that recipients are encouraged to forward to everyone they know. Please don’t. Although households should fill out the census at 2020census.gov, failing to do so won’t cost them a cent from the federal relief package.

On the same subject, anyone who promises you a relief check early is lying, according to the Federal Trade Commission, which states: “The government will not ask you to pay anything upfront to get this money. No fees. No charges. No nothing. The government will not call to ask for your Social Security number, bank account, or credit card number. Anyone who does is a scammer. Reports of money already available are not true. If anyone who tells you they can get you the money, they’re a scammer.”

Find more information at ftc.gov.

Q: Can I get the Covid kit over the phone for free?

A: No. Scammers use the promise of fake or non-existent COVID-19 testing kits to obtain the Social Security numbers, bank or credit card information or other sensitive data from their targets, according to the Defense Health Agency, one of several agencies warning of this or similar scams, which falsely promise tests, treatments, personal protective equipment or medical supplies. Members of TRICARE, the health care program for uniformed service members, retirees, and their families, are among those who have been targeted; they can find genuine information at tricare.mil/Coronavirus.

Q: Is Hawaiian Electric Co. cutting off power or not? I’m getting conflicting information.

A: No. “Service disconnections are suspended through May 17, an extension from April 17. If you receive a notice from Hawaiian Electric before May 17 that threatens to disconnect service, it’s a scam and should be ignored,” the company says on its website.

Likewise, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply reiterated that it “will not be shutting off any water service.”

Customers facing financial hardship are urged to set up payment plans.

Q: I got an email from someone who threatened to give me coronavirus if I didn’t pay them! I know it’s fake, but with so many people working from home maybe you should remind them about scams. I wonder if that email would have gotten through at work?

A: The extortion attempt you describe is indeed a scam, with other iterations. The email you received, addressed “dear neighbor,” threatens to infect the recipient with COVID-19, while another version, addressed the same way, claims to seek help for infected family and friends. Both scams want payment by bitcoin. Don’t reply and don’t click the links within. Check with your employer to see whether you should immediately delete the email or save it for investigation; workplace practices vary.

And yes, people suddenly working from home should check with their employers about boosting cybersecurity.

Criminals waste no time exploiting any disaster, and the pandemic is no different. The scammers’ toolkit includes creating websites and apps that appear to provide legitimate information but install malware or ransomware on the user’s device; impersonating government agencies by phone, email or regular mail (a ploy that may be harder to detect with so many government employees working remotely); and tailoring come-ons to fit the latest headlines.

Jason K. White, a special agent for the FBI in Honolulu, offered tips to avoid online scams:

>> Avoid opening attachments and clicking on links within emails from senders you don’t recognize.

>> Independently verify that information originates from a legitimate source.

>> Refuse to supply log-in credentials or financial data in response to an email.

>> Visit websites by manually typing in their domain. (Trusted sources for information about the pandemic would include, for example, cdc.gov and health.hawaii.gov).

“Please report all suspected scams and attempted fraud at ic3.gov,” the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, he said.


Write to “Kokua Line” at Honolulu Star-Advertiser, 7 Waterfront Plaza, Suite 210, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., Honolulu 96813; call 529-4773; fax 529-4750; or email kokualine@staradvertiser.com.


Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

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