Jessica Chicchitto Hindman is a professor of creative writing. But, as a teenager in Appalachia, she wanted to be a professional violinist. Accepted to study music at Columbia University, she packed her bags for the Big Apple only to face a $30,000 tuition bill she wasn’t able to pay.
The second blow came when Jessica realized just how limited her previous music training had been. Despite being a music major, she barely made it into the college orchestra. Before finishing her first semester, she changed her major.
But tuition payments continued to be a problem. Strapped for money, Jessica came across an advertisement for violinists to perform with a traveling orchestra on weekends. She thought her dream of being a professional violinist had finally come true when she was offered the job based upon her audition. Soon she discovered why she had been selected.
Jessica was hired to be a pretty face on stage, playing her violin with taped music in front of a mic that wasn’t turned on. Jessica was in effect “lip-syncing” on her violin. The music the audience heard wasn’t Jessica, but the more accomplished violinist on the tape.
This practice, called “synchronizing,” is more common than we’d like to think in classical music at every level. I’ve heard of a public school conductor who, concerned about his orchestra’s rating, instructed the less advanced players just to pretend to play during a competition. At the other end of the spectrum, the New York Pops got pressured into faking a performance to prerecorded music synchronized with a fireworks display.
You might think it would be easy to figure out that an entire orchestra was “synchronizing.” But audiences that paid for a live performance can suspend belief, rather than admitting they didn’t get what they paid for.
The same frequently is true of victims of financial scams. They can suspend belief long enough to believe that they won a sweepstakes they never ended or that they can make a killing on an investment. Although financial scams have been around for years, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought new scams and new twists to old scams. This article discusses COVID-19 scams and how people can prevent becoming a victim.
The Anatomy of a Scam
At its core, every scam is attempted theft. As thieves, scammers are more like a stealthy cat burglar than an armed robber. Like a cat burglar, a scammer tries to quietly sneak in and steal what they want without the theft being detected. And like the stereotypical cat burglar that wants to steal a specific high-value piece of jewelry, a scammer is focused on stealing a particular item, such as the victim’s identity.
What differs among scammers is the means of the theft, but many rely upon an unwitting but willing victim. The victim might wire funds, thinking they are helping a relative or that they will be paid a fee for helping someone transfer funds. The victim might hand over personal information believing it’s required for them to receive nonexistent lottery winnings. Or the victim may unwittingly download malware because they believe it will correct a problem with their device.
Scammers also differ in what they are trying to steal. However, their goal usually is to separate their victims from money or to obtain valuable personal information they can sell or use to fraudulently get money.
COVID-19 Scam Types
I previously wrote about real estate transaction scams and tax collection scams, but the new kids on the block are COVID-19 scams. Most of the COVID-19 scams are actually a new twist to old scams. As of May, Covid-19 scams had cost US consumers $39 mil.
COVID-19 Test or Vaccine Scams
The scammer contacts a victim and claims they can obtain a COVID-19 test or vaccine. For the victim to receive the test or vaccine, they need to provide the scammer with personal information. The information might be a Social Security Number, or health insurance information, or bank account. With this information, the scammer can commit identity theft or health insurance fraud or make unauthorized charges on the victim’s credit card.
Stimulus Money Scams
The scammer contacts a victim claiming that the victim is owed government stimulus money. For the victim to receive the funds, they have only to provide their Social Security Number or bank account information. With this information, the scammer can commit identity theft or attempt to access the victim’s bank account.
COVID-19 Charity Scams
COVID-19 charity scams involve requests for donations to a fake charity. The victim donates money, which goes into the scammer’s pocket. Plus, depending upon how the donation is made, the scammer also may gain access to the victim’s credit card, bank account, or money transfer company (e.g., Venmo) information.
COVID-19 Investment Scams
The scammer contacts the victim with a “once-in-a lifetime opportunity” to invest in a company that has invented a COVID-19 vaccine, test, or similar product. The scammer may provide the victim with a fake “research report” supporting the scammer’s claims. The victim, seeing an opportunity to strike it rich, sends money, which the victim never sees again.
COVID-19 News Story Scams
We all are familiar with click-bait–sensational news stories designed to draw us to a site. Most click-bait companies only want viewer link “clicks” to enhance their marketing of unrelated products. But sometimes, a viewer who clicks on the link will instead download a malware file or receive a popup encouraging them to protect their system by downloading a file.
The “Unclaimed Money” Scam that Targeted Me
Several weeks ago, I started receiving texts from an anonymous source, notifying me of “unclaimed funds” held by the state government. I have no doubt if I had clicked on the link in the texts, I would have been asked to provide personal information so my “claim” could be processed.
I don’t know for sure because I ignored the texts. But with each successive text, my supposed “unclaimed funds” increased. It was as if the scammer on the other end was trying to see how much it would take for my greed to overcome my common sense.
Fortunately, I wasn’t able to suspend belief enough to believe that my “unclaimed funds” could grow exponentially in a matter of days. However, I have to admit that the texts did cause me to wonder if maybe I had unclaimed funds.
Rather than clicking on the link in the text, I went to the website for the legitimate unclaimed funds office in my state to see my name was listed. Ironically, I found I was owed a small amount of unclaimed funds–but not nearly as much as the texts promised, and the dollar amount wasn’t continually increasing. One concern is I still haven’t figured out how the scammers got my cell phone number.
Don’t Become a Victim
Although the scams may have evolved, the safeguards for preventing them haven’t. The American Bankers Association and the Federal Trade Commission provide resources for fraud prevention. Here are my top tips to avoid being a victim of a scam:
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Many scams offer large financial returns, free money, or once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Even if those opportunities exist, they probably will not come your way via an unsolicited email, phone call, or text or social media advertisement.
The government doesn’t unexpectedly email or call people.
Unless you have asked for a call or email from a government agency, it’s probably a scam.
The government doesn’t call to ask for personal information.
The Internal Revenue Service or another government agency might ask for personal information on a communication you initiate (e.g., a call to the IRS or lookup of your tax information on the IRS website) to confirm you are who you say you are, but the reverse isn’t true.
If a company had a COVID-19 vaccine or cure, you would read about it on the news.
Any company that invents a COVID-19 treatment or vaccine will issue a news release, rather than sending unsolicited emails to random people.
Even if you believe a communication might be legitimate, don’t talk to a caller or click on a link in an email or text. Call back on a number you know to be accurate.
A financial institution will appreciate your fraud prevention safeguards if you insist on calling back on the phone number on your credit card or bank’s website. If the person on the other line objects to your desire to call back at a number you know is safe, it’s probably a scam.
Don’t click on links.
Even if an email or text appears to come from your bank, credit card company, or mortgage lender, don’t click on the link. Instead, go to the legitimate website for the financial institution.
Consider the odds.
Sure, some lucky person may have an unexpected inheritance or win a sweepstakes or receive an unexpected tax refund or have the opportunity for a ground-floor investment in the company that has invented a COVID-19 vaccine or cure. But realistically, what are the odds that will happen to you? And the odds are infinitesimal that the opportunity will come to you via a robocall, text message, email, or social media ad.
What if You Are a Victim?
Jessica Chicchitto Hindman’s fake orchestra experience didn’t hurt her in the long run. She obtained a master’s degree in creative nonfiction and a Ph.D. in English. Already a published writer, she wrote about her experience in Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir, which was a finalist for The National Book Critics Circle Award. But most scam victims won’t be as lucky.
The fake orchestra was able to succeed because audiences got caught up in the pageantry of a live performance. The audience members wanted to believe they were watching a live performance, so they ignored any signs that the performance wasn’t what it appeared to be.
Scammers also play on people’s desires and emotions. The COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn provide an ideal backdrop for scams. Those who refuse to get caught up in the excitement of the scammer’s claims and instead look for the signs of a scam and verify information with reliable sources can successfully navigate the pandemic without being victimized.
This series draws from Elizabeth Whitman’s background in and passion for classical music to illustrate creative solutions for legal challenges experienced by businesses and real estate investors.