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New Fraud Threat Emerges with COVID-19

A group of Fraud Watch Network volunteers
AARP volunteers, from left, Cherry Bijan, Carolyn Quinones, Madeline Fernandez, and Judy Helbig gather for a New Jersey Fraud Watch meeting.
Photo by AARP New Jersey

After Michelle Murphy joined a dating website in 2017, she began chatting with a potential mate she thought was a nice, well-educated man. Then he offered to cover her credit card bill if she bought him gift cards to help pay off a friend’s loan.

Murphy, 65, of Sayreville, knew it was risky to enter a financial arrangement with a stranger, but she thought her low-limit credit card would protect her. The man kept his promise for a time, paying off Murphy’s bill as her credit limit was increasing.

“I was trying to help somebody, thinking it was a decent idea,” she said. “I fell for it.”

In 2018 she got a message from her bank: Her credit card payment was declined. “I felt like my insides were ripped out of me,” she said. Recently retired from a 40-year teaching career, she was left with thousands of dollars in debt from the scam.

Murphy, who now volunteers for AARP New Jersey’s Fraud Watch Network, is not alone. In 2019, New Jersey residents lost more than $32 million to fraud, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

The state ranks 15th in the nation for total fraud, which includes identity theft, bank fraud and many other types of scams.

AARP New Jersey partners with the state’s Division of Consumer Affairs and other agencies to get fraud warnings out through conferences, forums and shredding events. During the pandemic, its education and outreach activities are online.

Scams go "viral"

The AARP Fraud Watch Network (aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork) offers free resources to combat scams, including a helpline, news and a scam-tracking map.

A new category of fraud has emerged, playing on anxieties over the coronavirus outbreak.

“Scammers read the headlines just like we do,” said Paul Rodríguez, acting director of the Division of Consumer Affairs. “They are trying to take advantage of people’s fears.”

Since the pandemic began, he said, swindles related to government stimulus payments, virus testing and bogus cures have been reported.

Consumers can protect themselves by questioning opportunities that seem too good to be true and being wary of scare tactics, Rodríguez said.

It’s also a red flag when someone requests money using a wire transfer or gift cards, two methods con artists prefer.

If you get a call, email or text from what appears to be an official agency, Rodríguez said, don’t give your information or click on a link. It is safer instead to hang up and call the agency directly or visit its website.

Charity scams are prevalent in times of emergency or disaster, Rodríguez said. Most charities are required to register with the state and can be verified at njconsumeraffairs.gov.

While crowdfunding websites have increased recently, Rodríguez said not all those fundraisers are for legitimate charities.

The Fraud Watch Network also keeps up with the latest scams and provides support and guidance to victims and their families, said AARP New Jersey’s Cristina Anastasio.

Among the network’s offerings are webinars and telephone town hall events with the IRS and other organizations. Learn more at aarp.org/njfightsfraud.

To report a suspected scam, call the Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360.

Christina Hernandez Sherwood is a writer living in Collingswood, N.J.

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