The public concern and confusion surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have offered an array of opportunities for con artists, who have pulled every trick from their books to cash in on the pandemic – including by dint of robocalls. A recent survey conducted by senior services company Provision Living and involving 4,038 Americans speaks volumes in this regard.

“Nearly a quarter of respondents said they’ve experienced an increase in robocalls since COVID-19 and 1 in 5 people have received a robocall regarding COVID-19,” said the survey. Most commonly, the robocalls and text messages claimed to provide treatment (22%), financial relief (18%), and free COVID-19 testing (18%).

To be sure, this won’t surprise our regular readers, who are by now well aware of coronavirus-themed scams that involve fake charities, bogus testing kits, credit card-stealing websites, and even extortion, to name just a few recurrent riffs on the same theme.

But let’s go back to the survey, which showed that two out of five callers claimed to represent the Social Security Administration (SSA), 38% impersonated Internal Revenue Service (IRS) officials, and over a third claimed to be from travel companies. These all seem to be clever ruses since the pandemic has forced a lot of people to cancel their vacation plans and some have fallen on hard times.

A total of 15% have received a robocall regarding their stimulus checks from people claiming to be from the IRS – it’s important to note that the IRS doesn’t normally call people. Also, the revenue service will not ask you to use a specific payment method (debit card, gift card, wire, etc.) but will usually first mail the taxpayer a bill with any taxes they owe.

Generally speaking, scams involving the IRS aren’t all that uncommon; some cybercriminals attempt to commit tax refund fraud by stealing other peoples’ identities using robocalls as well.

The incessant robocalls have had another adverse effect – over half of the respondents have become fearful in answering calls from unrecognizable numbers, while 46% missed an important call because they thought it was a robocall. On the other hand, the scams have also encouraged vigilance; almost three-quarters of respondent Google an unknown number before calling back.

How to protect yourself

Here’s how you can avoid falling prey to fraud facilitated by robocalls and scammy text messages:

  • If you receive a robocall, hang up and immediately add it to the list of blocked numbers on your phone.
  • You can enter your number into a national do not call registry or list. Here are the links to the various registries offering the service – in the United StatesCanada, the United KingdomIndiaAustraliaNew Zealand, and Singapore.
  • Never divulge any personally identifiable information such as your social security number, address, birthday, or tax identification number if you are not sure who you are talking to.
  • Always verify the identity of the caller – ask them to identify themselves and then check this information with the organization they are claiming to represent before continuing the conversation.
  • Some network providers also offer their own fraud- and spam-blocking apps, so you can check with them and download it to your device. Alternatively, you can use a third-party app that provides the service, but be sure to research it carefully.
  • Also be sure to educate your family members about the dangers of robocalls and fraudulent texts, especially the elder ones since they are the most susceptible.