Fake IRS emails. Zombie debt. Romance schemes. Grandparents scams. Cramming. Nefarious tech support offers. Sweepstakes fraud.
Yes, your suspicions are correct: Everyone is trying to con you right now.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received 1,304,002 reports of scams in the second quarter of this year, according to the agency’s most recent data, a 30% increase compared to the same period in 2019. Those include 667,507 reports of fraud, 286,855 cases of identity theft, and 355,630 other cons.
With so much more time on people’s hands—abandoned commutes, courtesy of permanent WFH policies, and the Great Resignation, a shift to leisure time and hobbies that erupted back in March 2020—you’d think people would take a few minutes to really think about what some of these offers are about. But consumers often don’t give suspicious situations the scrutiny they deserve, experts say, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the situation.
Between January 1, 2020, and October 18, 2021, the FTC received 270,301 reports of fraud related to COVID-19, in some way—either directly linked to the virus or simply instances where victims cite the pandemic in their complaints. Those cons translate into a loss $588.22 million; the median financial hit is $392.
Fast Company asked experts why now appears to be the perfect storm for scammers to take advantage of people. Here are six reasons:
The siren call of extra cash
As millions of people contend with layoffs or furloughs—or the fear of layoffs and furloughs—or worry about paying their rent post-eviction moratorium or keeping their businesses without the help of Paycheck Protection Program funding, the appeal of a windfall is very alluring. That offer to partake in lottery earnings or rack up a nice pandemic side gig as a secret shopper is extra appealing.
“In social engineering, fear is one of the most effective psychological factors out there,” says scam expert Will Mendez, managing director of the New York City-based cybersecurity firm CyZen. “If people are afraid they can’t make any money or will lose their job, scammers take advantage of the fear. There’s a little bit of greed, but people are looking to make money, and this opportunity [comes] and they’re more susceptible.”
Getting hit in vulnerable spots
Without the traditional avenues of in-person dating available, more people may be feeling lonely, which means romance scams are on the rise. Seniors, unable to get together with friends to attend events and classes that once kept them busy during the day, are tempted to respond to mysterious text messages about vaccine follow-up info or grandchildren in need of fast cash. Emails about stimulus payments catch the eye of parents with extra childcare responsibilities. Text messages that seem like they were meant for another person increasingly show up on phones. (Spoiler alert: They’re from scam bots, looking to bait you into replying.)
“Fraudsters won’t let a good disaster go to waste,” says Governors State University’s Bill Kresse, who is nicknamed Professor Fraud. “The pandemic just made people who might not otherwise be easy victims into easy victims. Desperation due to COVID brought a lot of that about.”
Other scams dip into easy loans, pandemic relief grants, fake-Venmo money requests, credit repair services, job opportunities, sponsorships for aspiring social-media influencers, tech support, and travel booking, according to a laundry list on the Better Business Bureau’s website. And with the Medicare and Affordable Care Act enrollment period underway since last week, expect more scams on this front, too.
“Whenever there’s a financial downturn, that’s one thing you’ll find,” points out Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy at the Consumer Federation of America. “These scams are always around—like a low-level fever, and they spike.”
Technology: pick your poison
Con artists know how to seek out and find consumers where they are. For instance, many WFH employees are at their computers, and when they step away from their laptops to, say, handle childcare responsibilities, they’re checking email and texts on their phone constantly. Then it’s back to computers, tablets, and phones for Zoom get-togethers with family and friends, or hunkering down to watch the latest addictive offering on a streaming service. Then you’re back online to do grocery or holiday shopping.
The con artists know these are the best places to nab you.
“You’re spending most of your time connected to the internet and using technology,” Kresse explains. “The technology is helping. Between emails and texting and phony websites, the technology has also contributed to fraud.”
Besides bogus text messages and emails, consumers have to dodge requests from fake Facebook friends and sham food-takeout websites. And don’t forget about ransomware, spyware to steal financial information and passwords, and fake sob stories to get you to hand over money, usually in the form of wire transfers or gift cards.
Bye-bye, bouncing off
Once upon a time, the vast majority of people went to offices every day, where they were surrounded by plenty of coworkers, underlings, and bosses. There were plenty of people to run things by if they got an intriguing text about a funding offer or an attractive email that promised a major payoff. And even individuals not cocooned in a cubicle every day could turn to roommates or relatives or friends over drinks or during a trip to the movies to get some feedback.
But for many people, such constant contact has gone the way of the business handshake.
“Why are all these scams taking off? So many people are working from home, it makes victims all that more accessible, plus it makes them isolated,” Kresse explains.
Anchored on positivity
Amid the darkness of the pandemic, it’s natural to crave a bit of good news. When that ray of sunshine comes in the form of a hopeful email offering up a significant other, a business lifeline, a share of a literal or figurative goldmine, resisting is hard.
“Frankly, even in times that are not a public-health emergency, that’s just a constant running theme for lot of scams. This is your lucky day. It’s just human nature for that to be appealing to people. It may be in times of trouble, people are more susceptible to that,” Grant says. “The idea that you are somehow eligible or entitled or chosen to get a lot of money usually for little or no work and effort on your part is just really appealing to people, and they want to believe.”
She adds that plenty of studies have confirmed that the desire to believe overcomes any doubt or misgivings that people may have. That desire is so powerful and hard to deflect that even law enforcement sometimes has trouble convincing people that a scam is a scam.
The takeaway is that now, more than ever, is the time for people to trust their gut.
“They’re willing to hit the mute button on the small voice in the back of their head,” Kresse says. “You really have to listen to that small voice . . . because that’s millions of years of evolution walking into danger. Desperate people don’t want to hear that. They are looking for some glimmer of hope and, sadly, the fraudsters know that.”
Carbs, nails-biting, and now this
The same feelings that are making people eat too many snack foods, overindulge in online shopping, pick fights with friends and loved ones, and spend hours in the middle of the night wide awake, are enabling scammers to have their way with innocent consumers.
“There’s so much stress that our brains get short-circuited. An email comes in, and I get money. It helps me get out of my rut,” Mendez sums up.
The anxiety is a hearty stew of COVID-related troubles, economic worries, racial justice concerns, and worries about the future. Everyone’s recipe is different, but the anxiety that cuts through it is universal. Whatever the makeup of your brain, these stressors don’t allow for much clear thinking, and in that void come poor choices.
“During the dark days of the pandemic, people are scared and do not know what they’re doing. Scam artists can play off that,” Kresse says. “Stress causes bad decisions or not thinking through things as well as you should.”