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.


True Crime Thursday – Invasion of the Body

By Debbie Burke


Photo credit: atimedia – Pixabay

What if a device measures your heart and respiration rate, body temperature, and blood pressure from almost 200 feet away without you ever knowing it? What if that intimate information is collected into a database? Who uses that information and what do they do with it?

Is this the premise for a dystopian/sci-fi/horror story?

Nope. It’s reality.

Pandemic drones created by the Canadian company Draganfly can do all that and more. In a video interview here, Draganfly CEO Cameron Chell claims the software will help public safety officials (in other words, law enforcement) track and prevent spread of disease.

Huh? Cops are now in charge of public health?

On April 21, 2020, Westport, Connecticut police announced implementation of pandemic drones that measure people’s body temperature, heart and respiration rate, and coughing and sneezing. Drones are already being used for enforcement of social distancing in New Jersey, Florida, and elsewhere.

The next day, the ACLU filed a protest statement saying, “Towns and the state should be wary of self-interested, privacy-invading companies using COVID-19 as a chance to market their products and create future business opportunities.”

Following public outcry, on April 23, Westport reversed its decision to use pandemic drones.

Is sneezing, coughing, or running a temperature a crime?

Does invasion of a person’s body by technology constitute unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment?

TKZers: What do you think?





Drones play a sinister role in Debbie Burke’s thriller Eyes in the Sky, available here

How Will Our Fiction Change Post Pandemic?

by James Scott Bell

So I’m writing away on my WIP a couple of weeks ago when I suddenly stopped short (no, not the Seinfeld kind; the Hey, wait a second kind). What did it was a scene where my Lead gets introduced to someone and they shake hands.

Will anybody be doing that when this stinking, rotten, unprecedented pandemic and societal shutdown is over? I’ve heard several folks (including President Trump and Dr. Fauci) suggest that we should scrap handshakes altogether.

Wrap your mind around that. We’ve been shaking hands since Socrates was a baby. It is a way to say hello, make a deal, show good faith, express gratitude or admiration. The Civil War ended when Grant offered his hand to Lee and the two warriors shook. (On the other hand, some handshakes haven’t worked out so well. See Chamberlain, Neville, who declared “Peace in our time” after shaking hands with that Austrian paperhanger with the Charlie Chaplin mustache.)

Even if the handshake is not officially dispensed with, a large swath of people won’t do it anymore. This will have to be reflected in our fiction.

And what the heck will replace it? Please, please, I beg on my knees…not the elbow bump—the ugliest, ungainliest contortion outside a game of beer-bong Twister. Some are touting the Hindu namaste, a slight bow with both hands pressed over the heart. Others advocate the slight nod. Former hippies have resurrected the peace sign.

What will your characters do?

Hugs are also certain to go the way of the Blue-Footed Booby. Which makes me sad. I’m a hugger. If I know the person and haven’t seen them in awhile, I do the grizzly. I always give and get lots of hugs at church. But post-pan will people be too nervous to give or receive a hug?

How will social gatherings change? What if you have a scene in a baseball stadium, movie theater, or shopping mall? Our scenes will have to reflect the “new normal.” But what will that look like? What details will we need to emphasize?

What about the courtroom scene? Will they still pack a jury box? Will a criminal defendant who has been in the viral hothouse of the country jail be required to wear a mask?

How about restaurant scenes? Will servers wear gloves to go with their masks? And beauty salons and coffee houses—how will people space themselves in these venues? What will be happening on airplanes and buses and subways? What will folks be nervous about? Will a sneeze start a bar fight? Almost surely if a Raiders game is on.

If there is a Raiders game!

And what are we to do about little action beats like stroking the chin or rubbing the eyes? Careful, or you might get angry emails saying, “Your characters touch their faces! What are you teaching our children? Do you want to kill us all?”

Here’s another kettle of trout: the rules of romance. Will dates be dictated by distance? What’s a man supposed to do at the end of the evening? Will a kiss ever be just a kiss? Or will it be a negotiated transaction with terms, conditions, representations, and warranties?

Will a man who wants to get serious give his prospective lover flowers or a twelve pack of toilet paper?

Maybe love scenes will have to go like this:

Chase looked into Dakota’s eyes, eyes that said Yes and I don’t care about germs. He leaned forward then, reaching out tenderly, wantingly, and with a hand trembling with desire, he unhooked her mask.

I ask you: What changes do you foresee in our social habits post-pandemic? How will all this change our fiction? 

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

by Michelle Gagnon pig

For the past few weeks I’ve been recovering from a cold. It was a nasty one- I rarely get sick, but when something manages to overcome my immune system, it’s generally a humdinger. On Monday night I was out to dinner with friends, still coughing.

At the first wheeze, the woman sitting next to me paled and slid away. “Have you been checked yet?”

“For what?” I asked innocently (I should clarify: I’ve been on a bit of a news blackout for the past few weeks. Between being ill and dealing with page proofs, current affairs fell by the wayside).

“Swine flu,” she said.

Now everyone slid a few inches away. I’d seen a headline about swine flu, guffawed at the bizarre name, and promptly forgot all about it. “It’s coming from Mexico, right? I haven’t been to Mexico.”

“Oh, it’s here now. Cases in Marin, the South Bay.”

“I heard they closed the airports overseas,” another friend interrupted. “A friend of mine was trying to fly out for their honeymoon, and the entire E.U. is refusing planes from the United States.”

“Really?” I said. At first, this had seemed funny. But now I was overly aware of the constant tickle in my throat. “But I’m not sick anymore, so even if I had it, it’s gone now, right?”

“Walking pneumonia.” My friend said solemnly. “You seem fine, then in a week you’re dead.”

And it’s killing healthy people our age,” another friend agreed. “They’re saying it could be the next Spanish flu.”

Now as you can imagine, all of this was very disconcerting. The SARS scare and avian flu had barely been blips on my radar: probably because at the time, I hadn’t been ill (and let’s be honest: avian flu sounds bad, but “swine flu” sounds positively vile, like you might suddenly sprout a snout).

Living in California, we’re frequently told that we’re ground zero for potential pandemics thanks to constant traffic from Mexico and Asia. But despite that, I always blithely assumed that me and mine would remain unaffected.

The mention of Spanish flu put it in a whole different league for me, however. My grandmother lost two siblings during that pandemic, and to her dying day discussed it in hushed tones.

So I ended up leaving dinner, heading home and going online to read everything I could about swine flu.

Good news: half of what was discussed at dinner was not true. Flights from the U.S. to Europe are continuing without pause (although a flight from Mexico to London resulted in all passengers being examined). Not only that, but U.S. citizens aren’t even being told to change travel plans to Mexico.

The whole incident got me thinking about fear, however, and the ways we sow panic amongst ourselves. 14 swine flu cases have been confirmed in the U.S. as of the time I’m writing this, with one fatality. The normal, run-of-the-mill flu kills about 36,000 Americans a year. So why this fear? Does the media create it to fill air time and drive up ratings? Why is the mere mention of a “pandemic” enough to send us heading for the hills? Some of my friends are debating keeping their children out of school. A local parent sent out an email detailing how we should be washing our produce in a diluted vinegar/bleach solution. One friend has even considered dropping everything and going to a relatively unpopulated area until sometime after May 6th, when apparently if all goes well, the worst of the danger will have passed.

Recently Philip Alcabes, the author of a book entitled, “Dread: How Fear and Fantasy have Fueled Epidemics,” was a guest on The Daily Show. He claimed that most of the threats we get all worked up over are meaningless in comparison to the much more real daily dangers we face. For example, in San Francisco it’s statistically far more likely that I’ll be hit by a car than die of swine flu (it’s not a great city for pedestrians. We’re working on it, but if you visit, look both ways before crossing the street. Even on one-way streets. Seriously.) Getting hit be a car doesn’t sound as scary as swine flu, though, does it?

So I made an appointment with the doctor to get checked out (if nothing else, this cough is driving me crazy). Fingers crossed, I won’t grow a snout.

So what do you think? Much ado about nothing, or should we head for the hills?

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, and more.