Elders face new coronavirus-related scams

This April 13, 2014, photo shows the Internal Revenue Service headquarters building in Washington. (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)

Dalton Walker

Tip one: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is

Dalton Walker

Indian Country Today

If there’s a scam out there targeting Indian Country’s elderly, Stephanie Barehand has probably heard about it, especially the new coronavirus scams.

The scam can come in the form of a phone call, email, postal mail, text message and even social media. In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission received more than 3.2 million fraud or scam reports.

“We hear something new everyday,” Barehand said, who helps elders avoid scams at the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona as the public benefits and independent living support specialist. “It seems like just when you think you’re grasping one area, another [scam] pops up.”

Her region services 21 of Arizona's 22 tribes. The Navajo Nation has its own region. 

Scammers are targeting Native people. Some say extra money is waiting for a small price upfront or that a testing kit or treatment for the coronavirus is available for a fee. Other scams attempt to benefit from the $1,200 Economic Impact Payment coming to most U.S. citizens.

At least one tribal leader has warned tribal citizens of an email scam related to the coronavirus.

In an April 14 Facebook post, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin said the email scam claiming to be from her was asking tribal citizens to purchase gift cards to help a citizen who tested positive for the coronavirus. Benjamin asks those that may have received the scam email from a Gmail account to contact tribal police.

“To the best of my knowledge there are still no band members who tested positive for COVID-19,” she said. “Unfortunately, there are some hateful people who will prey on the kindness of others during this crisis.”

Coronavirus scams surfaced when elders already deal with Medicare and social security benefit scams trying to steal personal or banking information. Native people tend to be the highest percentage of people not eligible for social security after age 65 due to many not working traditional jobs or low income. Another well-known scam is called “grandparent scam” where a caller claims to be their grandchild in need of emergency money.

(More information: Indian Country's COVID-19 syllabus -- Data, story summaries, lists of closures, resources)

The National Indian Council on Aging provides educational opportunities for Native elders from financial literacy, professional financial decision making to avoiding scams. The council recently posted special information on coronavirus scams in addition to its scams and fraud information.

Rebecca Owl Morgan is the Elder Equity project coordinator at the national council and is based in New Mexico. She assists elders on financial matters with training and answering questions.

She said Native elderly are constant scam targets.

“People love to try to get you to turn things over the phone, like sharing all your personal ID details so they can steal your identity,” Morgan said. “It’s a lot easier than I think a lot of us realize how easy it is to take your identity.”

A reminder Morgan wants to get across is that the "commonsense statement about it is, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.”

Another scam that targeted Native people on a larger scale was when the Cobell settlement payments were distributed a few years back, Barehand said. Scams are reported each day to a free helpline Barehand answers or returns messages. The Arizona helpline is available to help answer questions about health insurance, social security, veteran benefits and scams. Dial (800) 432-4040 and select option 2.

Barehand said social security or Medicare do not call asking for private information. However, she added that Medicare Advantage representatives might call to offer an additional health plan for a fee. These calls are usually from a private company that contracts with Medicare, she said. Barehand warned that anyone considering the Advantage plan to contact their health provider first, especially if they rely in Indian Health Service to confirm that the new plan would translate.

Barehand’s office provided potential Medicare cost information related to the coronavirus and tips to keep scammers away. To read the information, click here.

Tips and federal resources

The Federal Trade Commission has five tips to avoid a coronavirus scam: ignore offers for vaccinations and home test kits, hang up on robocalls, watch out for phishing emails and text messages, research before donating and to check its website for the latest information on scams.

The FBI, IRS, other federal agencies or tribal organizations have issued fraud or scam warnings related to the coronavirus pandemic. Agencies are asking people to only use trusted websites or sources related to the $1,200 payment. The payment is available to most people who earn up to $75,000 in adjusted gross income. If users filed tax returns for 2018 or 2019, the IRS will use the bank account number to make a direct deposit. A physical check via postal mail will come to those that don’t have a bank account or direct deposit listed. For qualifications of the one-time payment or payment status, click here.

The IRS has issued a warning on potential payment scams:

“The IRS urges taxpayers to be on the lookout for scam artists trying to use the economic impact payments as cover for schemes to steal personal information and money. Remember, the IRS will not call, text you, email you or contact you on social media asking for personal or bank account information. Also, watch out for emails with attachments or links claiming to have special information about economic impact payments or refunds.”

Social security recipients will automatically receive payments, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. Recipients will receive the dollars the same way they normally would receive their benefits. For those that didn’t file tax returns in 2018 or 2019, the IRS will use information on the Form SSA-1099 and Form RRB-1099 tax forms to direct direct deposit payment or to send by paper check. More information on social security can be found here or by calling (800) 772-1213.

The FBI has issued the following cyber tips to protect yourself:

  • Do not open attachments or click links within emails from senders you don't recognize.
  • Do not provide your username, password, date of birth, social security number, financial data, or other personal information in response to an email or robocall.
  • Always verify the web address of legitimate websites and manually type them into your browser.
  • Check for misspellings or wrong domains within a link (for example, an address that should end in a ".gov" ends in .com" instead).

Victims of coronavirus fraud are encouraged to report it to local law enforcement or the Natural Center for Disaster Fraud hotline at (866) 720-5721 or via email at disaster@leo.gov.

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @daltonwalker

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