Covid scams cost Americans nearly $500 million — and criminals are now eyeing the child tax credit

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Americans have lost nearly $500 million to Covid-related scams since the start of the pandemic, according to Federal Trade Commission data.

And the agency is warning that con artists will likely try to take advantage of families who expect to get monthly payments from the child tax credit, which start Thursday.

Around 327,000 people filed a fraud complaint to the federal agency between Jan. 1, 2020 and July 8 this year, the data shows.

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Victims lost a combined $488 million, according to the Commission. The typical person lost $366.

While fewer seniors have been duped relative to other age groups, their losses are almost three times higher — the typical person over age 80 lost $1,000 to fraud.

Criminals have used multiple avenues to steal money from unsuspecting Americans, including fraud related to online shopping, travel and government stimulus funds during the pandemic.

“While people are scared about their health and finances, con artists are having a field day,” Lucy Baker, a consumer defense associate at advocacy group U.S. PIRG, has told CNBC.

The actual amount of fraud may be much higher, since the data only reflects scams that the public reports to the FTC.

Online shopping accounted for the largest number of reported scams: 53,000 complaints, or about 16% of the total.

Americans increased their online orders during the pandemic as they spent more time indoors. But many were victims of “opportunistic websites” claiming to sell popular items — anything from hand sanitizer to gloves, electronics, clothing and even puppies, according to the FTC. Customers order the item but then never receive it.

When money from the government is in the news, we know scammers are about to run their standard playbook.

Lisa Lake

consumer education specialist at the FTC

Victims lost the largest amount of total money ($77 million) to vacation and travel scams, say FTC officials. Most fraud relates to refunds and cancellations, the agency said.

Travel has rebounded as Covid vaccinations increase — and fraudsters have responded by creating fake airline ticket booking sites or customer service numbers, according to the Better Business Bureau.

Some have involved victims searching online for cheap flights and finding what appear to be great deals with major airlines, according to the Bureau. Travelers should use caution and double check a website URL or phone number before providing credit card information, the Bureau suggests.

Stimulus and child tax credit

Scammers have also posed as government agents or other individuals claiming to be able to help ailing households access hundreds of billions of dollars in federal assistance, like stimulus checks, issued during the pandemic.

The FTC is warning families that criminals may try preying on families who expect to get up to $300 a month per kid from an advance of the child tax credit. The IRS is sending payments starting Thursday.

“When money from the government is in the news, we know scammers are about to run their standard playbook,” Lisa Lake, a consumer education specialist at the FTC, wrote last month.

“They may call, email, text or DM you,” she said. “They’ll say they can help you get your payments earlier (they can’t), get you more money (also no), or tell you other lies (for sure).”

Only the IRS will send these payments, so anyone trying to “help” you get a child tax credit is a criminal, Lake said. The government will also never randomly call, text, email or send a direct message and ask for money or information such as Social Security, bank account, or debit and credit card numbers, she said.