IRS warns of COVID-19 scams to steal stimulus money

Investigators

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — As the pandemic rages on, the warnings continue regarding COVID-19 related scams.

The feds say criminals are using a variety of schemes work to steal your money, and some are as simple as just physically taking it from you.

Millions of dollars in stimulus funds are passing through the mail in the form of paper checks and the IRS says not all it is reaching its destination because it’s being stolen right off the mailbox.

Once they have your check, it gets altered.

“We have business or gangs of enterprise people who “wash” the check,’’ said Special Agent Stefanie Hipkins who is a Supervisory Agent with the IRS Criminal Investigation Division in Raleigh.

She said, they change the payee or amount and then cash the check.

“They’re very good at what they do,” she said. “I’ve seen some of them.”

How will you know if your stimulus payment has been stolen? About 15 days after the payment was sent, you’ll get a separate letter saying you were given the money.

“Upon receipt of the letter and you have not received your economic impact payment, you’ll need to take additional steps to report the loss as a theft,” Hipkins says.

Since the pandemic began, The Federal Trade Commission has received over 67,000 complaints about COVID-19 related fraud via its complaint portal.

The agency estimates that fraudulent activity has put nearly $48 million dollars in the pockets of crooks.

Investigators said everything from fake N-95 masks and PPE to phony COVID-19 test kits are being foisted upon victims using fear of virus as the hook.

The IRS says some of the scams come though social engineering.

“Phishing scams, email scams and we’re also seeing it through text messages,” said Hipkins.

Those social engineering messages can lead to intimidation to get you to give up your stimulus money.

“People have been threatened that there’s an outstanding lien against them or that the IRS has some sort of action against them so you need to forward a certain payment—like $2,500,” she said.

It’s such a widespread problem that Inspector General of the US Treasury has issued a warning as well as created this link to report scams like that.

Even if you aren’t victimized by a criminal because you recognized it as a scam, you still need to report it.

Any leads, any information you might have could be an important piece of evidence, so absolutely let someone know,” said Hipkins.

Other COVID-19 schemes have fraudsters posing as IRS or other federal agents claiming you owe money and need to pay up right away or face arrest and imprisonment. Sometimes they ask for payments using gift cards.

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