True Crime Thursday – COVID 19 Scams

Photo credit: Mika Baumeister – unsplash

By Debbie Burke


The pandemic has provided new opportunities to enrich scammers. For today’s True Crime Thursday, I’m highlighting two popular schemes that thieves developed to profit from COVID 19.

First scheme: Economic Impact Payments. 

Your phone rings and caller ID says it’s the IRS.

Gulp! Your heart speeds up.

The caller claims to be an IRS agent. He or she sounds authoritative and convincing, offering a name (fake) and ID badge number (also fake). They may even already know some personal information about you.

They claim you owe the IRS money and demand you make immediate payment.

But, being compassionate, understanding folks, they offer several options they’ll accept for payment–such as a pre-paid debit card or wire transfer…


You can sign over your economic stimulus payment check and send it to them, endorsing it as “payment for past debts.”

If you don’t comply, the formerly compassionate, understanding caller becomes aggressive and threatens you with arrest.

Variation: They claim you’re owed a refund but they need personal information before they send it to you.

Reality: Scammers can easily spoof the supposed IRS number. They often impersonate IRS agents, law enforcement, or other officials to intimidate their targeted victim. 

The IRS may call you but their first contact is generally by mail.

They do not demand payment by pre-paid debit cards. They do not request credit or debit card numbers over the phone.

If the caller becomes abusive, the IRS advises you to hang up immediately.

Variation: phishing by email or text – You receive an email, text, or message through social media, claiming to be from the IRS. The sender address appears similar to but may be IRSgov (no dot).

It claims you need to update your information or that you’re owed a refund. It instructs you to click on a link that takes you to an official-appearing IRS site. There, you are prompted to enter personal information like Social Security number, bank accounts, PINs, etc.

Reality: The IRS will never contact you by text or social media. They do however use email to contact you. Always study the sender’s address carefully.

If you click on a phony link and answer the questions, thieves have your personal information. They can then file fraudulent tax returns to obtain refunds.

Even worse, clicking on the link may install malware that gives criminals access to your computer where they can steal sensitive information like passwords.

If you have doubts that a call or email is legitimate, the IRS advises you contact them directly through the website.

Here’s a link to IRS scam warnings:

Another wrinkle in economic stimulus payments is causing confusion. Your second payment may come in a different form than your first payment did.

The first payment may have been direct-deposited into your bank account or you might have received a check from U.S. Treasury.

But the second payment may arrive by mail as a VISA debit card. Because the envelope does not look like the typical IRS check, many people think it’s advertising or a solicitation and toss it.

Here’s what it looks like (click to enlarge):

The return address on the envelope has a Dept. of Treasury logo and says Economic Impact Payment Card from a P.O. Box in Omaha, NE.

Even though it looks peculiar, the VISA card is valid. 


Second scheme: Vaccine scams

You receive a phone call from the Social Security Administration or Pfizer, the drug company manufacturing COVID 19 vaccines.

At least that’s what Caller ID says.

The caller invites you to sign up to receive the vaccine.You only need to give them your Social Security number, Medicare number, bank account, and credit card information.

Further, the caller claims you can be placed higher on the priority list to receive the vaccine if you pay a fee.

Reality: According to attorney Steve Weisman in a recent Saturday Evening Post article

“The truth is that the Social Security Administration is not calling anyone about getting the vaccine, and no one is being asked to pay a fee to be put on a priority list to receive the vaccine. This is just a scam to get your personal information and use it to make you a victim of identity theft.”

Vaccine scammers also employ email messages and texts, like those described above by the IRS, to trick the recipient into clicking on malicious links.


Yes, in fact, there is a special list that gives preferential attention to seniors. Unfortunately, it’s the Scammers’ Roster of Favorite Prey.

Please watch out for vulnerable friends and family who might be on that most-favored list.


TKZers: Have you been contacted by someone impersonating the IRS, Social Security Administration, or a drug manufacturer?

Do you know anyone who’s been defrauded by COVID 19 scams? Please share that experience.




Debbie Burke’s new thriller Flight to Forever features a pair of plucky senior outlaws on the lam. Please check out the book here.


This entry was posted in #truecrimethursday, pandemic, Writing and tagged , by Debbie Burke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes the Tawny Lindholm series, Montana thrillers infused with psychological suspense. Her books have won the Kindle Scout contest, the Zebulon Award, and were finalists for the Eric Hoffer Book Award and Her articles received journalism awards in international publications. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers.

49 thoughts on “True Crime Thursday – COVID 19 Scams

  1. Thanks for a timely and wonderful post, Debbie.

    I’ve been fortunate to have not been scammed, but I did not know that the second stimulus payment may be sent as a debit card. I might have tossed the card, thinking it was a scam. Thanks!

    I started Flight to Forever last night. Great story idea and concept. It’s pulling me in already.

    • You’re most welcome, Steve. We received the strange VISA debit card instead of the customary direct deposit to the bank. Why? That remains a mystery. Approximately 8 million people were sent these cards, mostly in the western U.S.

      BTW, if you did toss the card in error, per, here’s how to apply for a replacement:

      “If your Card is discarded or destroyed, it is important that you call Customer Service at 1.800.240.8100 immediately and select the “Lost/Stolen” option.

      Your Card will be deactivated to prevent anyone from using it and, upon your request, a replacement Card can be provided at no cost to you. Please see your Cardholder Agreement online at for more information.” is the vendor in charge of sending the cards and their site has more answers.

      Their site also includes a schedule of fees charged for using the card. Hmmm, could that be a clue to the mystery of why cards were sent instead of direct deposit?

      Thanks for your kind words about Flight to Forever! Hope you enjoy the rest of the story.

  2. So far (with the exception of “Microsoft”), my scam callers have all been robocalls, and my phone company has a free service that requires callers to press 1 to continue the call. Robots can’t press 1. (I can enter 20 numbers that will bypass the system, so family doesn’t have to deal with this.)
    Another scam one of my writing peeps’ husband almost got pulled into was the fake call from a son/grandson claiming to be injured in an accident, in jail, and in need of money. Fortunately, she checked with her son, who was fine, before he transferred the money.
    I do worry about my 95-year-old mother, who’s showing signs of Alzheimers.

  3. I’ve gotten the IRS call several times, and of course, the Microsoft scam. I rarely answer any of the ten or so calls to my home phone unless I recognize the number. I wish people would put as much effort into making money legally as they do illegally…thanks for the information on the Visa card!

    • Patricia, I’m with you about screening calls. The robos are so busy, I almost never answer the phone anymore.

      Many scams take a lot of work and imagination. I suspect the thrill of getting away with illegal acts motivates some criminals who otherwise have the brains to make a legal living. Crime is more fun.

  4. My email in-box has been flooded with fake messages about magical $1,200 stimulus payments. I easily get a half dozen of these per day. What’s funny is some of them are from famous characters as if the foreign scammers used American TV for inspiration. I got an email from “Don Draper” asking for my bank info.

    P.S. Some of us think the REAL IRS is a scam, too! LOL

  5. I never answer the phone unless the caller is in my list of contacts. I figure if the call is important, a message will be left and I can call back at my convenience. This eliminates an enormous amount of aggravation.

    • Sue, those spoofed local numbers bug me, too.

      Lately I’ve received several that show up on caller ID as “Spam Risk.” I have to admire their honesty.

    • I hate those spoof calls. Our cell phone service provider now has enable spam detection, so we get a notification that it’s a likely spam call. The same thing for the landline handset we picked up last year. Very useful.

  6. Thanks, Debbie! I bet many people are not aware of the Visa card…I would’ve cut it up for sure. And I live in the PNW, so we might get one.

    This is kind of a reverse scam story. I’d just purchased an online conference registration through my Paypal account, using my business credit card through our credit union. Done it many times before, and for other items also.

    Within 15 minutes I received a suspicious-looking text on my iPhone saying there was possible fraudulent activity on my account, and to click here to speak to someone, or text “yes” or “no” to indicate it was me. I chose to delete the text. That evening I received a robocall with the same info. I ignored it.

    The next morning, I looked at my business account online and saw the transaction, but it was flagged. Uh-oh. Called the credit union and was informed that since I’d not responded, they canceled my credit card. The text and robocall was not a scam!

    I didn’t know that our credit union had instituted this service. They reinstated my credit card instantly, and all is well. It’s happened once since, when we made a rather large purchase at a local establishment on our main account. I promptly responded. 🙂

    • Deb, I’ve also received alerts like that from Discover (which, BTW, has been extremely good about fraud protection). But, with so much spoofing, it’s hard to tell the white hats from the black hats.Glad your credit union resolved the matter.

  7. Debbie, Thanks for such a valuable (literally) post! I’ve gotten to the point where I simply don’t answer the phone unless I know who’s calling. The good news is that caller ID now comes up “spam.” Not always, but enough to be encouraging.

  8. This is a great and timely post, Debbie. I have had several scam calls purporting to be from the IRS and Social Security. Two stand out:

    1) I received a call from someone purporting to be a U.S. Attorney calling to collect an IRS debt I supposedly owed. I responded “Oh horsefeathers!” (or something like that) and he became indignant, threatening to send the U.S. Marshal to my house to arrest me. I told him “Don’t send a guy with a family” and he hung up on me.

    2) I received a cal,l supposedly from Social Security, telling me that my SSN had been compromised and was being cancelled. I was instructed to press ‘1’ to get a new number. The call went like this:

    “SSA”: Social Security. What is your compromised number?
    Me: Que pasa, Yanqui?
    “SSA”: I don’t speak Spanish.
    Me: Then we have a problem!
    “SSA”: Why?
    Me: Because I don’t speak English!

    He implied that I was intimate with ladies with children and hung up on me.

  9. I am now in charge of my mom’s money after she sent “a considerable sum” to scammers. I routinely see just about every scam around in her inbox or mine.

    Look at the sent by address. Hover over it to see the real address. This is a little harder on a phone than a computer but you want to see something like Start reading right to left. It is easy for the visible name to be but the actual address is Delete anything that doesn’t end in what you are expecting. If it has the Amazon logo the address should be or

  10. The Microsoft scam
    This is the one that hooked mom even though she has an IT professional for a son. She just fell for it for a second time. The first time I did what Information Security professionals suggest. Tossed the computer. This time I took a look.

    There is no virus. The scam works by convincing you to download a remote viewer program and then the remote user disables your browser. For only $1,000 they will undo the 30 seconds of work they did to break your computer.

  11. I have a landline, don’t judge, and the scams are constant. It’s a rare morning I’m not wakened with some scam, phoney charity, or specious car warranty company. The government must have tightened down because I’ve actually been able to sleep past 8 AM for the last few days. I’ll give it a week before it starts again. The hydra is real, not just mythology or a Marvel villain.

    The scariest shell game right now is being run by my state and the government with the Covid vaccines. Here are 10,000 promised dosages, nope, not here. Where are they? Where are they?

      • Same here! Cell signals go in and out on the mountain where I live. The landline is ol’ reliable. It’s also more comfortable to chat on a landline, IMO.

    • Marilynn, I have a landline, and that’s the company that gives me the free spam blocking I mentioned in my comment. Call your provider and see what they offer. I think they’re moving toward required all phone companies to provide this kind of option.

  12. Timely post, Debbie. We’ve received a number of robocalls in the past few years that claim to be either from the IRS or SSA. I used to be library contact with the IRS for a number of years, and I already knew full well that they don’t call you, they send a letter first, for anything. The same for the SSA. The reality is that these agencies don’t have anything like the number of people required to be calling up individual citizens out of the blue, and they don’t use robocalling. The same is true for Microsoft, Apple, etc.

    Another sure sign these are scams is that they often don’t even state your name, just state a vague but ominous sounding message. I had one that told me that I needed to contact “my local county courthouse.” If I were in legal trouble, my actual county courthouse would send me a letter. That’s what they did when I was summoned for jury duty six years ago. (Aside: I ended up being the jury foreman 🙂

    My father-in-law received one of those scam calls a while back, early in the morning, from someone claiming to be his then 19 year old grandson with a broken down car out in the back of beyond. My dad-in-law replied, you aren’t [NAME] because he never gets up before 10AM 🙂

  13. Thank you for this valuable information, Debbie. I didn’t know about the Visa card thing. I probably would have tossed it.

    I had an email recently, purportedly from my bank suggesting I take a look at our account that would receive the covid payment. There was a link. Boy, that email looked good, but I had received phishing emails with my bank’s header before, so I didn’t fall for it. Clicking a link in an email is like leaving your doors unlocked at night. It might not be dangerous, but don’t take the risk.

    That was an easy one to spot, but we know people who have lost real money to scams. Elderly people seem to be the most vulnerable. What a shame.

    I’ve also had calls from the Social Security Admin, the FBI, and Publishers Clearing House. (That last one was pretty funny.) These people are creative. Maybe they should write books.

    • Kay, the only indication the VISA card might be official is a teeny little Dept. of Treasury logo on the return address. Apparently the BBB and many consumer protection agencies are receiving inquiries about the cards.

      Some emails and links are virtual clones of bank websites. No wonder they’re so hard to spot.

  14. Good info & timely, Debbie. I haven’t had a Covid-related scam call, but the IRS ones come in about once per week. Most are bots, but for the odd live one with the Indian accent I give them a blast from an aerosol emergency air horn. Oh, and the Nigerian prince emails, I always forward them to Sue Coletta. 🙂

    • Thanks, Garry.

      The Nigerian prince used to email me regularly until I gave him your address.

  15. I happened to think of two pro author scams I was involved with. (A topic worth repeating for another True Crime blog, Debbie.)

    I once received a Nobel Prize for LIterature scam email. My books had been nominated, and I needed to send some money to facilitate my nomination. After I stopped laughing at the idea of a romance author being nominated, scam or not, I put up a warning on my writing blog.

    Then there was the Frankfurt eBook Awards where Bill Gates was scammed by some bigwigs in traditional publishing.

  16. Hilariously, I got a couple of more scams today after this blog posted.

    Social Security scam phone call saying my SSN had been compromised.

    An email saying my Amazon transactions were put on hold because my billing information didn’t match something. Mousing over the button they wanted me to click revealed a wacko email address. (With all the money I spend on Amazon, I would expect a call from Bezos himself if there was a problem with my account!)

    Are our legislators doing anything about this stuff?

    • Kay, didn’t you hear about the Do Not Call List? The FTC advises: “report the ones you get at We take the phone numbers you report and release them each business day to help telecommunications carriers and other industry partners that are working on call blocking solutions.”

      Yup, that scared the pee out of phone scammers, all right.

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