How to Recognize Spam, Phishing, and Hacking Attempts — and Keep Your Personal Data Secure

May 7, 2020

COVID-19 has significantly disrupted our way of life. It has proven to be more than a public health emergency or an economic crisis. The disease has left countless individuals all over the world feeling isolated and exposed to vulnerabilities they may never have experienced before.

But COVID-19 has also inspired many of us to rise to the occasion. Entirely new charities have been launched to put furloughed service industry employees back to work. Crowdfunding website GoFundMe has reported a surge in giving, with users of that platform donating over $120 million to COVID-19-related relief efforts. And one 99-year-old WWII veteran has raised almost $40 million on his own by walking laps around his back yard.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has also prompted fraudsters to concoct a wide range of devious internet scams targeting Americans and their financial information. In fact, by late March 2020, cybersecurity experts were reporting a 667-percent increase in malicious emails disguised as outbreak updates.

How can you tell a legitimate COVID-19-related communication from a scam? Who are hackers preying upon, and what tactics, tools, and tricks are they using? What proactive steps can you take to keep your online accounts secure? For answers to these and other questions about protecting your personal financial information, read on.

How Can I Spot A Coronavirus-Related Malicious Email?

Start by cautiously opening any messages you receive from senders you don’t know. Read carefully, looking for the telltale signs of spam (or unwanted commercial email). These signs include:

  • Generic greetings such as “Hello Sir/Madam.”
  • Poor grammar.
  • Misspellings of common words.
  • Requests that you open an unexplained attachment or download a file.
  • Requests for your online banking login, password, card number, PIN, or Social Security number.
  • Threatening language (e.g., “Your account will be suspended if you do not respond within 24 hours.”).

What If I Receive A Suspicious Email That Appears To Be From A Company, Organization, Or Individual I Recognize?

To make their schemes more believable, spammers may send messages that look like they come from legitimate email addresses or familiar parties. This practice is known as phishing.

In most instances, a quick check of the sender’s email address is enough to confirm that the email is a hoax. If the sender address consists of a long string of numbers and letters or does not reference a web domain you recognize or would normally associate with the sender, it’s probably spam.

Always confirm the contents of suspicious emails seemingly sent by a family member, friend, or employer with a phone call.

Are There Any Specific COVID-19 Spam Emails I Should Know About?

YesRecently, scam artists have taken to sending out emails that appear to have been sent from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Fraudsters have also taken to impersonating government officials attempting to contact the recipient about their stimulus payment. In the words of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC): “The IRS won’t contact you by phone, email, text message, or social media with information about your stimulus payment, or to ask you for your Social Security number, bank account, or government benefits debit card account number. Anyone who does is a scammer phishing for your information.” 

Bad actors are also sending out many spam emails about medical treatments for COVID-19. Beware of any email you receive advertising vaccines, home test kits, or Medicare benefits related to COVID-19. 

I Want To Donate To A Charity Helping In The Fight Against COVID-19. But How Can I Tell If A Solicitation Is Legitimate?

Some fraudsters are also using malicious emails to exploit the goodwill of others. However, a legitimate charity will never engage in the following practices:

  • Ask that you donate to their cause via a direct cash payment, wire transfer, the purchase of a gift card, or a cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin.
  • Pressure you for an immediate contribution.
  • Request your personal information or financial data.

Do not respond to such emails. If you are still uncertain about the sender’s status, do some online research. You can search websites such as Give.orgGuidestar, and CharityNavigator to find in-depth information on a range of legitimate nonprofit organizations.

I Received An Email Advertising A Product I’m Running Low On Or Am Out Of. Is This Spam?

Unless you signed up to receive emails advertising sales or special offers on products you might be interested in purchasing, these emails are likely spam.

Criminals are currently spamming consumers with emails looking to take advantage of shortages (both real and rumored) of products such as toilet paper, meat, hand sanitizer, disinfectant, and personal protective equipment (masks, gloves, goggles, etc.). The products advertised may be counterfeit, defective, or only available at artificially inflated prices — a process known as price gouging. 

You can report price gougers to either the Office of the Attorney General of Texas or the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF). You can also report any company engaging in questionable marketing or business practices to the Better Business Bureau.

I Am Currently Unemployed And Searching For A Job. Can I Trust Unsolicited Emails I Receive About Employment Opportunities?

Some scam artists will attempt to gain access to personal financial information by sending out fake job postings. 

Thoroughly investigate any job opportunities that appear to be too good to be true. Overly generous work-from-home arrangements, promises of extremely high weekly or monthly earnings, and offers to start right away, without an interview, are hallmarks of job offer spam. Also beware of any prospective employer who says they will need your personal information to complete the hiring process or bill you for job-related training, software, and/or hardware.

To learn more about job scams and how to report them to the proper authorities, visit the website

Do Spammers Use Other Communications Channels?

Yes. You may also receive automated phone calls (or robocalls) and text messages (robotexts) with the same messaging described above. 

Scammers may use other tactics on these channels as well. For example, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports that “text message hoaxes may claim that the government will order a mandatory national two-week quarantine, or instruct you to go out and stock up on supplies. The messages can appear to be from a ‘next-door neighbor.’ The National Security Council tweeted that these are fake. FEMA is tracking rumors and reminds consumers to always check a trusted source.”

Finally, if a text message includes a suspicious-looking link, don’t click on it. If the message appears to have been sent from a friend or family member, check with them to make sure their account hasn’t been hacked.

What Should I Do With The Spam Emails, Phone Calls, and Text Messages I Receive?

Report any spam messages to your email provider.

Most email clients allow you to flag emails that somehow make it through your spam filters. Doing so should prevent future emails from these same senders from arriving in your inbox. You may also be able to block emails from specific senders by adding them to a blacklist. 

To protect yourself from robocalls and robotexts, consider adding your phone numbers to the National Do Not Call Registry. You can register both phone and mobile phones using this free service. You can also report unwanted calls and texts. For more information about the National Do Not Call Registry, consult these FAQ at the FTC’s website

How Can I Shop Safely Online?

As a result of the coronavirus outbreak, more people than ever are buying groceries, household items, and other necessities online. Accordingly, here are a few simple steps you can take to make your internet-based purchasing safer.

  • Never make a purchase at a website that does not encrypt transaction data. You can verify that your connection is secure by checking to see if the site uses HTTPS. Most modern web browsers will also alert you to potential risks if you attempt to access an insecure website. 
  • Regularly compare your account balance and transaction history against your actual purchases. Online fraud often goes unreported because victims don’t know cyber criminals have used their payment information without their knowledge.
  • Set up text message notifications for credit/debit card spending. Many credit card providers allow you to specify charge amounts — for example, anything over $300 — that will trigger an automatic notification.
  • Download your bank’s mobile application. Mobile banking applications are very useful in helping people manage their money and safely shop online. By installing a mobile banking application on your smartphone, you can quickly and securely access your account balances and transaction history.

What Other Steps Can I Take To Protect My Financial Information?

Just as commerce is increasingly moving online, hackers, phishers, and scam artists are increasingly exploiting online data security vulnerabilities. Therefore, you should protect your finances by taking a few steps to make your internet usage more secure.

  • Install an antivirus or malware (malicious software) detection and removal program on all your internet-enabled devices: computers, smartphones, and tablets.
  • If you are not actively using a device, keep it powered down and disconnected from the internet.
  • Do not duplicate passwords or PINs across different websites. If you set the same password for every service you use, thieves can easily gain access to your bank accounts if just one of those service providers experiences a data breach. If you’re worried about keeping track of your login credentials, a free password manager can do the work for you.
  • Enable a passcode lock on your electronics. That way, scam artists won’t be able to easily access your financial information if they steal your computer, smartphone, or tablet.
  • Secure your home internet network with a quality password. Browsing the web on an unsecured network is like leaving your home with the doors unlocked.
  • Avoid connecting to public Wi-Fi hotspots. Thieves have been known to set up or subvert open internet access points to steal private information. Connect to your wireless network at home and use your mobile data when on the go.
  • Consider using a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN encrypts your internet traffic, meaning malicious operators can’t access it or remotely pin down your location. While they might sound daunting to the uninitiated, VPNs are relatively easy to set up and offer a high degree of personal online security. You can also use a VPN on your mobile devices.

If you have additional questions about banking online, protecting yourself from fraud, or how to manage your finances during the COVID-19 pandemic, you can find more answers here on the Guaranty Bank & Trust website.

As always, our Guaranty Bank & Trust team members are here for you. Call our Customer Care Center at 888-572-9881 to speak to one today.

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