Question: I got a call about how to pay the funeral expenses of people who died of COVID-19. I get a lot of scam calls, and this sounded like one, but the weird thing is I did have a relative who died of COVID-19, but it was months ago on the mainland and we were not close. Is this a scam? If not, how did they get my number?
Answer: Yes, this is a scam and one that is spreading just as a legitimate government program begins assisting with funeral expenses of people who died of COVID-19. The timing is not coincidental, as scammers piggyback on actual events to exploit potential victims. Such scams generally seek the broadest number of potential targets using auto-dialers (robocalls) and then hook people who fit the scam’s outline. We doubt you were specifically targeted, but the call got your attention because you had a family member, however distant, who had died of COVID-19.
Kokua Line’s voicemail has filled up the past couple of days with scam reports, so we’ll summarize what to do about a few we’re hearing about the most:
>> Funeral costs: There is a real program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that will pay up to $9,000 in funeral expenses for COVID-19 victims. However, FEMA won’t contact you until after you have called FEMA or applied for assistance. Anyone who calls out of the blue claiming to be from this program is a scammer, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Hang up and report it to the FEMA Helpline at 800-621-3362 or the National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721 or online to the FTC, at www.ReportFraud.ftc.gov.
As for the genuine program, survivors of COVID-19 victims can apply for funeral assistance by calling 844-684-6333. The number is experiencing high call volume. For more information, go to fema.gov and search for “COVID-19 funeral assistance.”
>> Direct deposits: The Internal Revenue Service does not text people asking for their bank account information so it can deposit stimulus payments or tax refunds. Such texts are scam attempts. The uptick readers are reporting coincides with tax-filing season and the distribution of third-round Economic Impact Payments (stimulus funds). IRS impersonation texts generally include a link (don’t click it) that takes the user to a replica, fraudulent website designed to capture their personal and financial account information. The IRS says people targeted by this scam should take a screen shot of the text message and email it to email@example.com. Besides the screen shot, include the date and time (with time zone) when the text was received, the number that appeared on caller ID and the number that received the text message.
>> Hawaiian Electric: Hawaiian Electric does not accept bill payment by Cash App, Bitcoin, gift cards or prepaid debit cards. Moreover, the moratorium on disconnections due to nonpayment has been extended to May 31. Anyone who calls, emails or texts demanding immediate payment to avoid disconnection is a scammer. Although the company says the number of scam reports is steady, thieves’ methods are changing. Notably, some are demanding payment by prepaid debit cards, going so far as to instruct victims to purchase MoneyPak cards and not to tell the store clerk why. “Scammers have figured out that store clerks are now trained to intervene if the customer says they’re purchasing cards to pay a utility bill, and employees have helped many potential victims avoid being conned out of their money. So in this most recent case, the scammer warned the customer that a $50 fee would be charged if he told the clerk it would be used to pay a utility bill,” Hawaiian Electric said in a news release, describing how a business paid scammers thousands of dollars in MoneyPak cards. Report scam attempts to Hawaiian Electric online, using the Fraudulent Activity Report Form on hawaiianelectric.com. To reach the form from the company’s home page, click on “Billing & Payment” and then select it from the pull-down menu.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.