Officials sound alarm over virus relief check scams

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An IRS watchdog on Tuesday urged people to watch out for possible scams related to the federal government’s coronavirus assistance to taxpayers as lawmakers and government officials are seeking to prevent people from falling victim to schemes about the forthcoming recovery checks.

Under the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package President Trump signed late last month, known as the CARES Act, most people will receive direct payments of up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per child. 

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) said in a news release on Tuesday that people should be vigilant about scams relating to the checks because criminals have long devised schemes targeting government aid programs. 

“The [CARES] Act authorizes payments to taxpayers to offset the economic impact of the coronavirus,” said Inspector General J. Russell George. “Previous government assistance efforts have been used by crooks and scammers who see this as an opportunity to defraud taxpayers in every way possible.”

George urged people to report to TIGTA any incidents where they are contacted by someone claiming to be an IRS official who offers them their coronavirus payments in exchange for a fee or their personal information. 

He said that the IRS is never going to call people to ask them for their personal information in order to receive their checks and that the agency won’t request people’s personal or financial information over email, text message, mail or social media. 

People can forward suspicious emails that appear to be coming from the IRS to People who suspect they are victims of IRS-related coronavirus scams can report them by using an online form on TIGTA’s website.

There has been pressure from lawmakers to prevent scams targeting recipients of coronavirus relief.

TIGTA’s warning comes after Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote to the watchdog on Monday, asking it to “take every reasonable effort to educate Americans about the ways in which scammers and fraudsters might try to cheat them out of their money and their benefits during this time of unprecedented need.” 

Grassley said that phishing scams involving the impersonation of IRS and Treasury officials “not only steals hard-earned money from honest Americans at this time of acute need, but it also sows distrust in government programs, such as the forthcoming recovery rebates of $1,200 or more that the IRS will be providing to millions of Americans in the coming days and weeks.”

Grassley on Tuesday highlighted TIGTA’s resources about coronavirus scams on Twitter, saying that “everyone can help stop these criminals by educating older members of their family/community especially.”

The IRS last week also issued a warning about coronavirus-related scams, saying that retirees in particular may be targeted. The agency said that there are several different tactics scammers may employ. These include asking people to sign over their checks, asking people for personal information to speed up the delivery of their payments, suggesting that people can get their payment faster if they work on their behalf and mailing people fake checks and then ask them to verify personal information in order to cash them. 

“We urge people to take extra care during this period,” IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig said in a statement on Thursday. “The IRS isn’t going to call you asking to verify or provide your financial information so you can get an economic impact payment or your refund faster.”

The agency said that in most cases, the IRS will automatically send people their rebates based on the information in their 2019 or 2018 tax returns or Social Security benefit statements, and no additional information will be required. The IRS said that people who have not provided their direct deposit information to the agency will be able to do so via a secure online portal on the IRS’s website starting later this month.

Rep. Kevin Brady (Texas), the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, was positive about the Trump administration’s efforts to alert the public to potential scams.

“The Administration has been diligent in warning Americans what to look for in potential scams related to the refund checks and other coronavirus related relief,” he said in a statement to The Hill.

Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said that oversight is important to make sure that the government is vigorously working to protect people from scams.

“There needs to be strong oversight to ensure the federal government is doing all it can to prevent Americans from being taken advantage of and having their cash payments stolen,” he said.

Former IRS officials said that the coronavirus rebates have several characteristics that make them particularly likely to attract scammers. They noted that some people who are eligible to receive the payments typically are not required to file tax returns and have less familiarity with how the IRS works and that many people are currently financially strapped and in great need of money.

Mark Everson, who served as IRS commissioner from 2003 to 2007, said that people who try to call the IRS about their checks but can’t get through to a representative may be susceptible to calls from IRS impersonators.  

“You have vulnerable people anxious to get their money, and they’ll be more susceptible than ever to an approach,” said Everson, who now is vice chairman of alliantgroup, a firm that helps businesses take advantage of tax incentives.

Nina Olson, who formerly served in the IRS watchdog role of national taxpayer advocate, recommended that the Ad Council and major advertising agencies work with the government to get messages out to the public about coronavirus-related scams. She said that there should be public service announcements about scams on television and social media platforms.

“You’ve got to go where the people are,” said Olson, who is now executive director of the Center for Taxpayer Rights.

Scams relating to the direct payments are one of several types of coronavirus-related scams and fraud that lawmakers and government officials have been raising concerns about in recent weeks. 

Lawmakers and federal agencies have also said they’ve received reports about people receiving letters that their Social Security payments will be suspended due to virus-related closures, scammers pretending to be Medicare officials in order to obtain people’s personal information and scammers telling people that they have to pay a fee to apply for the small-business loans created by the CARES Act.

The Federal Trade Commission said that it has received about 12,600 coronavirus-related complaints through Monday, about 7,100 of which related to some type of fraud. Nearly 300 complaints had been made about scammers impersonating government officials, reporting losses of $315,000. 

Updated at 5:08 p.m.

Tags Chuck Grassley Coronavirus Donald Trump Kevin Brady Ron Wyden Stimulus

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