(The Center Square) – After the federal government began dolling out trillions of dollars in coronavirus stimulus money, criminals saw the windfall as an opportunity ripe for theft. Since early last year, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office began issuing consumer alerts to warn Floridians about a range of scams.
The latest consumer alert issued Monday warns Floridians about fraudulent robotexts being used to trick consumers into sharing their personal or financial information. Robotexts are sent to users’ phones from unknown numbers that often contain malware or lead to malicious websites.
With Americans on track to receive 86 billion automated texts this year, according to Robokiller.com, robotexts have become more prevalent than robocalls, and Floridians are expected to receive nearly 5 billion this year, making Florida one of the most spam-texted states in the nation.
“These automated text messages are now more prevalent, and potentially more dangerous, than robocalls since malicious links can be clicked on directly in a text,” Moody said. “These links often contain malware that can be instantly downloaded to a phone. Any interaction with this type of text will show the scammer that the phone number is active, making the targeted user vulnerable to further messages. Consumers should be wary of opening or clicking links in unrecognized texts.”
In April 2020, the AG’s office issued an alert warning Floridians of COVID-19 robocall scams, published examples of fraudulent recordings, and issued a “scams at a glance” brochure.
Over the past two years, Florida has seen its fair share of bad actors committing a range of COVID-19-related fraud. From March 2020 to January 2021, the AG’s office issued more than 30 consumer alerts related to COVID-19 emergency scams as well as tips to avoid them.
“As we have seen throughout the pandemic, bad actors are looking for ways to exploit the crisis to steal money, government benefits and people’s identities,” Moody warned.
COVID-19-related scams have included robocalls, robotexts, phishing emails, and websites that claim to offer fraudulent services. Fraudsters have impersonated government officials, health care workers or others, attempting to steal funds or commit identity theft.
One example involved scammers posing as county health department officials attempting to take payments for booking COVID-19 vaccine appointments, or asking for personal information, attempting to commit identity theft. Anyone asking for money or personal information in exchange for an appointment is a scam, Moody warned.
Another scam involved fraudsters claiming to be Medicare officials offering seniors in-home vaccination appointments and requesting a copy of their Medicare card in an attempt to steal their information and commit fraud.
The AG’s office also warned Floridians about posting their vaccine cards online and called on Twitter, Shopify and eBay to prevent scammers from fraudulently posting COVID-19 vaccination cards on their platforms.
“Those who buy fake cards can fraudulently add personal information to the cards to falsely claim proof of vaccination,” Moody warned. “These deceptive cards threaten the health of our communities, slow progress in getting people protected from the virus and violate many state laws.”
The AG’s office also issued an alert this summer about a COVID-19 vaccine survey scam that involved contacting people by email or phone offering them compensation in exchange for completing the survey designed to capture their personal information.
“Once a victim’s information is stolen via the fake survey, scammers may use it to access bank accounts, set up credit cards and/or steal identities,” Moody said.
Another scam this summer involved fraudsters impersonating FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan in phishing emails, claiming recipients were eligible to receive non-existent COVID-19 relief funds after they provided personal and financial information.
“These brazen scammers are impersonating a federal agency charged with investigating and shutting down scams,” Moody said. The FTC has never sent out any COVID-19 stimulus money, and encourages consumers to report such scams.
Another COVID-related scam recently thwarted involved Floridians fraudulently filing unemployment claims in multiple states in order to receive pandemic relief payments and unemployment benefits, as well as recruiting others to do the same on social media. A multi-agency investigation found that none of the alleged perpetrators were unemployed in Florida because of COVID-19 or had been employed in the states where they also filed claims. They allegedly fraudulently obtained more than $550,000 in pandemic-related, unemployment-assistance funds from multiple states as a result of the scheme and were charged with multiple counts of fraud.
Last month, the AG’s office issued another alert about hackers taking advantage of mobile payment apps. “The COVID-19 pandemic may have prompted more people to use mobile payments rather than transfer cash, or even credit cards, between individuals to prevent the spread of germs,” Moody warned. The AG’s office published guidelines on how to safely use mobile payment apps.
In addition to issuing consumer alerts, the AG’s office also created a scam hotline and website to file complaints: 1(866) 9NO-SCAM and MyFloridaLegal.com.
Last year, the state also activated a Florida price gouging hotline to help Floridians report price gouging, scams and other unfair acts related to the COVID-19.
By March 2021, the AG’s Consumer Protection Division had helped recover more than $2.5 million for consumers regarding COVID-19-related cancellations, purchases and scams, Moody said. By May 2021, that number increased to more than $3 million recovered; by December, more than $11 million recovered.