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Scammers increasingly turning to COVID-19 as a way to trick Hoosiers

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INDIANAPOLIS — Federal data shows a spike in scams targeting Hoosiers since March, as scammers increasingly turn to COVID-19 as a way to steal your money.

The scams take a lot of different forms, with the largest reported as online transactions.

Indianapolis resident Colburn Pratt lost almost $1,000 to a classic check scam. Emails show the scammers referenced COVID-19 twice as an excuse that caused Pratt to let his guard down.

“It was not a great feeling, you know, somebody (taking) advantage of you,” Pratt said.

Pratt was selling a guitar amp on Craigslist. He has sold items online before, but always made sure to do the transaction in person. In this case, though, the buyer claimed in an email, “I wouldn’t be able to come down to your location due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.” Pratt made an exception and agreed to handle the transaction online.

The buyer told Pratt they were moving and a moving company would pick up the amp. When they sent him a check for $1,000 more than the price of the amp, they claimed the money for the moving company had been mistakenly included, saying in one email that due to COVID-19 their “daughter spent the last two days at the hospital.”

“It was a good story … at least to me, it was,” Pratt said.

Pratt agreed to wire the $1,000 moving fee to the so-called movers. After he saw the money from the check appear in his account, he sent the wire transfer, but the check later bounced, leaving him on the hook for the money.

“I’ve always thought that once a check clears, the bank has received its funds, so talking to the branch manager here, that’s actually not the case,” Pratt said.

Better Business Bureau of Central Indiana CEO Tim Maniscalo confirmed that this type of check scam is common, though the use of COVID-19 is new.

“The scammers are always going to have some sort of reason why they don’t want to meet you and (COVID-19) is just the perfect excuse not to meet anybody,” Maniscalo said.

Maniscalo and Pratt both suggest that you do your research about scams before sending money to anyone you don’t know. If that money is being sent via wire transfer or gift card payment, it is most likely a scam.

“Whenever somebody sends you (a check) and it’s more than the amount you negotiated, that’s a real red flag,” Maniscalo said.

Pratt said in his case, if he’d looked at the page on Craigslist about common scams, he likely would never have lost the money.

“It’s really simple and it’s something I should’ve done when I first started selling stuff online,” Pratt said. “It was a quick five minute read to go through what they had recommended to identify a scam.”

COVID-19 related scams are being reported across the country in many different forms. In addition to online transactions, you should beware anyone who calls you unsolicited under the guise of a state or federal agency and asks for your personal information, especially bank account or social security numbers.

You can read more about COVID-19 related scams at the FTC page here. You can also learn more about common check scams at the link here.

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