Life can be challenging and stressful during national crisis such as the global Corona virus pandemic which created a major financial upheaval. Many businesses were forced to halt their operations and consequently many employees either permanently lost their jobs or are placed on temporary leave until the situation improves. In times when the global economy is hurting, governments offer financial support to businesses and individuals to keep the families and economy afloat. For example, the US government offered Paycheck Protection Program or PPP and special business loans to businesses to keep employees on payroll until the economy picks up again as well as stimulus checks and increased unemployment benefits to individuals suffering from financial hardship. With these exceptional government assistance programs, the risk of identity theft and fraud also rise which becomes difficult to manage by all governments, businesses and people.
Government Assistance Programs
Thankfully, many government financial aid and support programs kick in for a lot of people that have special needs during major crisis. The federal government created additional financial resources which offered a huge help to millions of Americans who suddenly found themselves without income, laid off from work, or stuck at home because of kids being out of school and out of daycare during Covid-19.
Unfortunately, the new and enhanced financial programs also made every scammer and fraudster crawl out of the woodwork to get every penny they can take from others and from the government itself. That puts every honest and needy citizen in jeopardy. If you want to keep your identity and your fair share of economic support benefits safe from these crooks, you have to identify the scams these tricksters pull. Then take it a step further and report any interaction with such criminals to the government and other appropriate parties to prevent others from being financially harmed.
Identity Theft and Fraud Targets
There are two targets for identity theft and fraud criminals. Crimes committed against individual citizens, and crimes being committed against business owners. Let's look at each separately to get an idea of what these scammers are up to.
Individual Identity Theft and Fraud
Phishing scams are still the widespread method to steal an identity and commit fraud. To do this, the thieves either robocall you and tell you that they are part of the department to which you have applied for some sort of government benefit. When you respond thinking that it's legit, they ask for your personal information, including things like social security numbers or your password that you used to apply for benefits online. DON'T GIVE IT TO THEM.
Any personal information, especially the type of information needed to confirm or verify your identity and the security of accounts, is how these thieves steal your identity. Once they get what they need from you, they transfer the account over to their names, and then begin getting the benefits for themselves. The truly difficult part comes when you try to straighten it out with the department handling those government benefits, and the government staff take weeks or months to sort things out while leaving you without support due to overwhelmed contact centers.
The online scam involves a very official-looking email that looks completely legit. However, if you click on the email address to see where it's coming from, that tells you a lot. Most of these scam emails and phishing emails have addresses with personal names or a string of letters and numbers in them that have nothing to do with the organization to which you applied for services such as loans and unemployment.
Always contact the caseworker or the agency in which you reside to see if they were trying to contact you first. Never respond to suspicious-looking emails. In fact, it's best not to open them period and shuffle them into your spam box and delete them immediately.
Additionally, if you want to be sure your government stimulus checks come directly to you, verify that your social security number is on your tax documents. Verify that you are getting direct deposit and that your checking account is not compromised in any way. There may be future stimulus and benefit payments that you do not want identity thieves to divert out of your account.
If you were somehow compromised, and you receive notices from government agencies about benefits that you are not receiving or benefits that are ending when you were not informed officially that there would be changes, contact that organization directly. Social security numbers are often compromised, leading to identity theft and theft of benefits that were yours to claim. It also helps to sign up for identity theft protection, which can protect your personal information and even track it on the dark web.
A lot of the government programs to help business owners are where the really big money is during crisis. This includes the Payment Protection Program or PPP loan to support businesses with payroll for themselves and employees, the EIDL or Economic Injury Disaster Loan and grant program, small business loans that can be forgiven or get delayed repayment terms, and more.
Thieves get really excited about expanded government assistance programs because it means opportunity from fraud anywhere from a thousand to millions of dollars if they can get their hands on your personal information such as social security number, business operating license number, or TIN or EIN numbers. Do not give out this information to any caller who claims to be from an agency or a lending organization offering to help in exchange for a "fee" for "lender" services.
If in doubt, call the organization or lender with whom you were doing legitimate business directly and ask them if they called. They can check their phone and email records to see if any recent contact was made with you for the purposes of business funding. It is also a very good idea to utilize special email software when conducting business transactions of any kind that might have this valuable information on documents or correspondence. You should always shred documents you do not need to keep if and when these documents contain such information in order to prevent dumpster-diving would-be identity thieves from taking that from you.
If you are compromised, change all account numbers, all government issued numbers, all business-related passwords, and contact anyone that might be affected by the breach. Make your lenders aware of the situation, too. If you have credit monitoring and identity theft monitoring programs for your business, watch them carefully for the next several months after you are sure that you have covered all bases.
Responding to Fraud
Government assistance program fraud is a common occurrence but can be even a greater risk when special programs are offered to assist people during major crisis. People should be concerned that someone else may apply for benefits under their names, jobs, and unemployment or steal information to get account access. In summary, follow these steps: