PROTECT YOURSELF!!! Scammers are targeting you are your loved ones more than ever

Marshall Rathmell and Josh Jones |

As COVID-19 has changed the way we all live, it has also created massive amounts of noise and distraction from critical things we all need to know and remember. We have been increasing our posts so that our clients, friends, and readers are provided pertinent information.

It has come to our attention that regulators (like the Alabama Securities Commission) and consumer advocates (like AARP) have been trying to get the word out that while many honest hard working Americans are sheltering in place and work is slowing, the hackers and scam artists are working overtime. With new ploys to steal our money and data they are taking advantage of the epidemic.

To understand more I spoke with Josh Jones, the Managing Principal of Bressler, Amery &Ross’s Birmingham, Alabama office. Josh represents brokerage firms, investment advisers, and other financial institutions across the country. He is a co-manager of Bressler's Senior and Vulnerable Investor Group, whose lawyers provide end-to-end advisory solutions and litigation support for firms confronting senior/vulnerable investor issues.

Marshall (MR): Josh, what scams and attacks are the regulators focusing on bring to the attention of our readers?

Josh (JJ): It is sad that we are having to talk about this Marshall. But scammers often use times of crisis and uncertainty to prey on the vulnerable and take advantage of the gullible and that’s just a fact of the world that we live in. Below are a few of the new coronavirus-related scams targeting seniors and others:

  • Coronavirus Vaccine Scams: Fraudulent offers of coronavirus vaccination or preventative medicine. Scammers will ask for an over-the-phone payment.
  • Investments in Research and Development Scams: Similar to the above, fraudsters offer investment opportunities in companies that are purportedly developing a vaccine.
  • Government Assistance Scams: Scams for fees or charges regarding government loans or attempts to get personal information.
  • Home Sanitation Scams: Online or telephone offers to clean and sanitize homes that require pre-payment.
  • Dangerous Websites/Email Blasts: Fake websites and emails with malicious attachments claiming to sell products that combat coronavirus or that have preventative tips and fake information about confirmed cases.
  • Sales Pitches Amidst Stock Market Decline: Promises of safety in precious metals or real estate, can’t miss investment opportunities, and more. Investors should be on the lookout for these and other coronavirus related investment scams.

MR: While I consider myself savvy, I could see even myself getting caught off guard by some of those cons. What should I and our readers be doing to prevent ourselves from becoming victims?

JJ: Seniors and other investors are encouraged to take a few commonsense precautions:

  • HANG UP THE PHONE! Do not give your private information out over the phone to people you don’t know. If something sounds confusing or odd or like you are being misled, trust your instincts, and get off the phone. Reputable companies and government agencies will have other means of getting in contact with you and/or allowing you to direct your contact with them.
  • Do not click on email attachments or links from sources you do not know.
  • Watch for emails purporting to be from the CDC or WHO. Both use addresses that end in “.int” rather than the more common “.com” or “.org.”
  • Ignore online or telephone offers regarding vaccination. At this point in time, no vaccination for the coronavirus exists.
  • Before donating, research charities that claim to aid those in need as a result of the coronavirus. Avoid solicitations for donations made by cash, gift card, or money wire.
  • Discuss any “investment opportunities” with your financial advisor or other trusted professional.
  • Report suspected scams to the authorities.

MR: Like many of our readers, I have family members in the most vulnerable categories for COVID-19 that are also amongst the highest targeted by scammers. Protecting them from the virus through isolation seems to also put them at greater risk of these scams. What can I do to protect them?

JJ: In a troubling parallel with the virus, seniors and other vulnerable adults are particularly susceptible to financial fraud and exploitation. Measures taken by the government to protect seniors from the virus have largely focused on limiting personal interactions and self-quarantine. Unfortunately, that very separation can exacerbate issues that make seniors particularly vulnerable to financial exploitation including isolation from loved ones and various health concerns, sometimes including cognitive decline. And those issues can become particularly acute in times of stress. The substantially increased isolation caused by the spread of the virus coupled with the extreme volatility in the financial markets and economy at large is a perfect storm for fraud and financial abuse.

Below are a few suggestions for those who might be concerned about their elderly loved ones becoming potential victims of financial wrongdoing:

  • Maintain open lines of communication to the extent that you can under the circumstances. Talk on the phone. Text. E-mail. Facetime, Zoom or Skype. The technology is not as complicated as it may appear at first glance.
  • Send them a link to this blog or a newspaper article on scams (there are plenty!) and have a follow-up conversation about these issues.
  • Look for red flags indicating that a loved one may be a possible victim of financial exploitation, keeping in mind that most financial exploitation comes from those who are in close contact with the victim. Such red flags include dramatic, unexplained shifts in investment style, unusual financial transactions including sudden withdrawals or changes in regular withdrawals, unplanned or sudden expenses, family/friends/new acquaintances who pay extraordinary interest in assets, and abrupt changes in estate planning documents.
  • Remain mindful of recognized signs of diminished capacity, including memory loss, confusion, disorientation, change in appearance, inability to manage financial affairs, repeated resetting of passwords, making financial decisions inconsistent with history, or a sudden interest in “get rich quick” schemes.
  • Consider whether trusted contact forms should be updated. These forms are provided for by federal regulations and allow accounts holders to identify someone who can be a resource in connection with administering a customer’s account, protecting assets, and responding to possible financial exploitation.

MR: Many of our readers are small business owners. Their companies are already hurting and the attacks you mentioned could be devastating to them and those that they serve. What should they focus on?

JJ: To put it bluntly, businesses are under attack as cyber threat actors seek to capitalize on the global concerns associated with the virus. And as the number of employees working remotely grows, businesses are more vulnerable than ever. Businesses should remind employees of their obligations under the company’s data privacy and protection policies and their prior training(s). To the extent a company does not have such policies or has not conducted that training, it should consider reaching out to a legal and/or technical provider. Here are few areas of concern:

Phishing and Other Cyber Scams

  • 9 in 10 encounters with malware stem from emails delivered to a business’s employees
  • 1 in 50 URLs is malicious
  • Phishing for log-in credentials constitutes the majority of data breaches.

Data Breaches and the Workplace

  • More than two-thirds of workers are sure they have received a phishing email at work
  • Average total cost of a data breach is now nearly $4 million
  • 35% of workers who know they have been hacked do not change their password
  • Nearly half of employees admit they click links from unknown senders at work.

COVID-19 Based Cyber Threats

  • Coronavirus based phishing scams have arrived via malicious emails and compromised sites
  • Coronavirus-themed domains are 50 percent more likely to be malicious than other domains
  • Over 4,000 coronavirus-related domains have been registered since January 2020
  • Fake Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 live map
  • .iso attachments.

MR: Thanks for your time Josh. We appreciate what a great resource you and your firm are for ourselves, our clients, and our peers across the country. I know that your team is available to consult on specific incidences and I welcome our readers to reach out to you, the Alabama Securities Commission, or regulators in their state.

-Marshall Rathmell and Josh Jones-