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Stimulus checks: Government officials brace for a wave of scams

Ben Werschkul
·Senior Producer and Writer
·3 min read

As Americans await their latest round of stimulus checks, scammers are already working overtime to steal them. The payments — which could begin arriving as soon as this weekend — are particularly easy targets. "It's sort of unfathomable," says Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Kelly Slaughter.

She joined Andy Serwer for a Yahoo Finance Presents interview Friday and laid out her concerns for a new wave of scams expected in the weeks ahead following the enactment of the $1.9 trillion economic relief bill.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JANUARY 07:  Federal Trade Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter participates in a privacy roundtable at CES 2020 at the Las Vegas Convention Center on January 7, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. CES, the world's largest annual consumer technology trade show, runs through January 10 and features about 4,500 exhibitors showing off their latest products and services to more than 170,000 attendees. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
Federal Trade Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter during a privacy roundtable at CES 2020. (David Becker/Getty Images)

Slaughter says her agency will make a big push to combat the scammers who “are going to try and trick Americans into giving them money or sensitive personal or financial information on the promise that doing so is necessary to get their stimulus checks and it's just not."

‘Anyone who is doing that is a scammer’

Those eligible for the $1,400 checks with banking information on file with the IRS should receive the money via a direct deposit. Those who don’t have that information on file will get paper checks in the weeks ahead.

Slaughter expects scammers to reach out and purport to be from the government asking for personal information as a way to receive or speed up a check. "Anyone who is doing that is a scammer," she says. Slaughter adds that the outreach could come in a variety of forms: phone calls, texts, emails, and social media messages. 

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 11: U.S. President Joe Biden participates in a bill signing in the Oval Office of the White House on March 11, 2021 in Washington, DC. President Biden has signed the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill into law at the event. (Photo by Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden signs the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill into law. (Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)

Her agency has long fought scams and has seen a spike in consumer fraud complaints over the last year, from 3.2 million to 4.7 million, she says. "Anytime people are struggling — and especially when relief is coming from the government — we know that scammers are going to jump in and try to exploit that desperation" Slaughter says.

Scams in all shapes and sizes

Slaughter joined the Federal Trade Commissioner (FTC) in 2018 and was designated acting chair by President Biden on his first day in office.

The agency, whose central mission is consumer protection, has seen a variety of scams amid the pandemic. The suits brought over the last year have ranged from businesses falsely promising to send masks to fake websites claiming to have cleaning products to scammers peddling fake COVID cures.

One scammer even tried to sell vitamin C as a COVID-19 treatment.

The Better Business Bureau is another group closely watching scams and maintains a page with the top frauds for the last year.

The fact that these scammers are often based overseas limits the federal government’s ability to directly prosecute them so the goal is often to try and get between bad actors and their targets.

The FTC is set to receive extra money in the latest economic relief bill for its scam fighting work and has often been the most visible agency focused on public awareness with advice pages, a complaint assistant, and even a scam bingo card. The agency is also asking people to report scams at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.

"We are going to use all of those tools to their maximum possible extent but the best thing we can do to help people is prevent them from getting scammed in the first place" Slaughter says.

Ben Werschkul is a writer and producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.

Read more:

Stimulus checks: $1,400 payments could come as early as this weekend

Coronavirus vaccine scams are on the rise — here's how to spot them

A ‘perfect storm’ of coronavirus scams emerges amid pandemic (From May 2020)

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