INDIANAPOLIS — COVID-19 deals and relief funds may sound like a great way to save some money, but the Better Business Bureau Serving Central Indiana warns that scammers are using the pandemic to try to steal your money and personal information.
The BBB is seeing a surge in complaints about con artists posing as businesses and government agencies offering COVID-19 related discounts.
WRTV Investigates found the scammers are using a new twist that makes it harder to spot a scam.
Sibhekile Sibanda was living in Indianapolis when she got a Facebook message from her friend’s sister.
The Facebook contact told Sibanda about the COVID-19 emergency relief grant program, and the friend said she had received $8,000 through the program.
Sibanda was skeptical.
"In the back of my mind, I'm thinking if this girl says it happened to her and she got hers and I know her so that means it must be something legit,” Sibanda said. “I also recovered from COVID, and I know there's COVID compensation."
The message directed her to a website where she answered some questions to qualify for the COVID-19 emergency relief grant program.
She texted a phone number provided, where they told her to go to a Bitcoin ATM.
“This program is legit and not a scam,” read the text message. “The fee is our standard delivery requirement.”
After Sibanda sent $300, they asked for her Facebook password.
“We request that you provide your Facebook password to enable us to secure your package,” read the text message. “This is a security measure against issues of counterclaims of your grant and to prevent unauthorized access into your account by unknown persons during this period until the check is successfully delivered to you.”
Sibanda provided her Facebook password, but when they wanted another $950 for “insurance," Sibanda finally realized she’d been taken.
“They are getting very smart,” Sibanda said. “I said ‘I really hope that they catch you.’ That was the last communication that I had."
Sibanda contacted Facebook who told her someone in Nigeria had locked her out of her accounts.
She filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.
“I'd love to get my money back, because it was my hard-earned money,” Sibanda said.
WRTV Investigates contacted the number Sibanda had been using, and the scammer asked us for a $450 “refundable delivery fee” so that we could get our COVID-19 relief fund money.
When WRTV Investigates asked them to return Sibanda’s $300, we got this response.
“Sorry you’re talking with the wrong person,” read the text. “I don’t (sic) anyone with that name.”
The BBB is seeing an uptick in complaints about claims offering COVID-19 deals, funding and discounts.
They can come in a text, email, phone call or social media message and they can appear to be from the government or a reputable company.
For example, consumers reported to the BBB receiving the following text messages using this ploy:
- “COVID-19 REFUND. VERIZON COMPANY is giving out $950 to all users of our Verizon service, If yes kindly text your Verizon”
- “Due to the pandemic, Hulu is giving everyone a free 1-year subscription to help you stay at home. Get yours here [link].”
In reality, scammers are just trying to get your money and personal information.
"The government or a company isn't going to reach out to you personally for some sort of gift like this,” said Tim Maniscalo, president at the BBB Serving Central Indiana. “If you get a personal message, that's another red flag."
Scammers are hacking into Facebook accounts and impersonating your friends, making it difficult to gauge what’s real and what’s not.
Con artists are also relying on confusion surrounding COVID-19 and a slew of relief programs out there.
“They're very good at taking something that's currently in the news, twisting it a little bit, making it sound like 'Hey this sounds real to me,'” Maniscalo said.
Sibanda was able to get her Facebook account back, but she’s out of $300 and wants you to avoid making the same mistake.
When she reached out to her friend, the sister of the woman who supposedly messaged her, she told Sibanda they tried to scam her too.
“Be careful of what you receive through text message or instant messenger,” Sibanda said. “Check it first before you respond even if it is someone you know. The key is they use people you know and impersonate those people."
While the latest BBB Scam Tracker reports mention Hulu, Netflix, and Verizon, watch out for scammers impersonating other companies too. If one name stops being effective, they’ll quickly switch to another company.
BBB Tips on How To Avoid Text Message Scams
- Treat messages from unknown senders with caution. If you receive a message from a number you don’t recognize, be careful. Many companies engage in SMS marketing, but keep in mind that consumers must opt-in to receive messages. If you haven’t given a company permission to text you, it’s probably a scam.
- Don’t click on links from strangers. Scammers often send shortened links that don’t let you see where they really lead in the body of their text message. If you click the link, you could be directed to a dangerous website, or you could download malware onto your device.
- Confirm deals directly with the company before you accept. If you are really hoping the deal is legitimate, go to the company’s official website and send them an email, or call to inquire. The company can let you know if the deal is real or not.
- Install antivirus software on your computer and mobile devices. This kind of scam can come from text messages or emails, so make sure all your electronics are protected. Antivirus software can scan for malware and alert you before you open a malicious website link.