The $600 federal stimulus checks now landing in bank accounts and mailboxes across the U.S. will deliver an urgently needed financial shot in the arm to millions of Americans. A potentially nasty side effect: The attention of criminals eager to profit from the $166 billion government relief program.
Officials from states ranging from West Virginia to Florida are warning people to be wary of scammers seeking to defraud them of their stimulus payments. The checks began landing in bank accounts this week, with the IRS prioritizing people whose banking information is on record with the tax agency. Other people may receive mailed checks, but the IRS said it could take longer for them to get the money than those whose accounts accept direct deposits.
Because many Americans may not know when their checks are due to arrive and are anxious for the money, it could make them more susceptible to scammers, who are running so-called phishing schemes via phone calls, texts and emails to get valuable information from their victims.
In one such scam, the criminal pretends to be calling from a government agency and promises to quickly deliver the stimulus check payment — as soon as you pay a fee through a prepaid debit card. Other scammers say the money will be released after their victim provides them with personal information like their bank account data or their Social Security.
"A lot of people are desperate for this money — I get it," said Teresa Murray, consumer watchdog at the consumer advocacy group U.S. PIRG. "But it breaks my heart for people who stumble into an even bigger mess." That often means stolen bank information, credit cards or personal information such as Social Security numbers that scammers can use to fraudulently purchase goods and raid accounts.
Consumers should know that the IRS won't contact them through text, email or phone calls. Instead, the agency will only reach out through the mail. The first round of stimulus checks also attracted scams, with the IRS warning in November against clicking on texts that promised $1,200 checks.
Fraudsters may also falsely promise to expedite the arrival of a stimulus check. Likewise, the government won't ask consumers to pay a fee to collect their payment, while people should also be wary of unsolicited phone calls fishing for personal information.
"It's important to remember that if you are vulnerable and desperate, you are capable of suspending your common sense for a minute," Murray said.
Criminals may have another way to target stimulus check recipients, said Haywood Talcove, CEO of LexisNexis Risk Solutions. The IRS website "Get My Payment" lets people check the status of their stimulus checks by entering basic personal information, such as their date of birth and Social Security number.
But because of data breaches like the 2017 Equifax hack, much of this information is already available in the shadier parts of the internet known as the "dark web." For example, fraudsters can use the personal information they find to log into the IRS site to find out how much money a potential victim is receiving and where it's being sent.
What scammers can't do is redirect the funds toward their own bank accounts. That's because the IRS isn't allowing consumers to update their bank account information as part of this latest round of checks.
But as a result, people who moved or closed their bank accounts since the first round of checks this spring might be confused or worried if they don't immediately get their payments — making them more susceptible to scammers promising to track down the government funds if they only pay a fee or provide information.
"This is Christmas for fraudsters," Talcove said.