Protecting seniors from COVID-19 fraud

By Sarah Ovaska

Offers to sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine, an IRS agent calling to confirm a stimulus payment, or someone at the door offering to swab your nose to see you have the coronavirus.

These are among the ploys scammers are implementing right now against American seniors in hopes of profiting from the uncertainty, fear, and anxiety that the novel coronavirus pandemic has caused.

More than 3,600 complaints of COVID-19 scams had come into the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center through April 21, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Federal authorities have already shut down a number of internet-based scams, including websites purporting to be the IRS and American Red Cross as well as other COVID-19-related websites laden with malware that, when clicked or downloaded, can give hackers access to people’s computers.

Because older adults are at elevated risk of the dangerous effects of COVID-19 and have long been targets of fraudulent scams, they are justifiably anxious, said Randy Wolverton, CPA/CFF, a retired FBI special agent who serves on the AICPA’s Forensic and Litigation Services (FLS) Fraud Task Force.

Scammers “are feeding on the fear factor of the unknown and they are acting on that by pretending to offer solutions and comfort,” Wolverton said.

Here are three ways that accountants can help shine a light on COVID-19 frauds that affect the elderly.

Know the dangers. Crises, especially one as rattling as the COVID-19 pandemic, provide prime opportunities for fraud, which thrives on false information. CPAs should familiarize themselves with how these ploys work, Wolverton said.

CPAs can get up-to-date information about COVID-19 fraud through the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which sent out special guidance to those over 60 about COVID-19 scams; the U.S. Department of Justice; and the AARP, the prominent advocacy group for seniors. The AICPA also has a special COVID-19-related fraud section hosted by the Forensic and Valuation Services Section.

The National Center for Disaster Fraud, a federal effort established in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina and housed in the U.S. Department of Justice, is taking in complaints related to the COVID-19 crisis. Members of the public can report issues at 866-720-5721 or through an online complaint form.

Right now, only health care providers are performing COVID-19 tests, and no vaccine or recommended treatments for the pathogen exists, per the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). CPAs should reemphasize this information to clients, especially those who are older and at risk for being duped, Wolverton said.

Karen Webber, CPA, a Rochester, N.Y.-based forensic accountant who specializes in elderly financial protection, frequently uses the free resources provided by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) for information about ongoing frauds. Many government organizations like the CFPB can mail fraud prevention-related materials to people, including CPAs, that might be helpful.

Pick up the phone. CPAs should use a simple communication device of old, the phone, to warn seniors about COVID-19-related fraud. 

A phone conversation is a chance to remind clients that “the IRS is not going to email you. You don’t have to confirm your stimulus payments,” Webber said. This makes a big difference for seniors to hear this from someone like their own CPA, whom they already trust and turn to on financial matters.

Webber suggests CPAs project calm when talking about the dangers of COVID-19 fraud attempts. Many seniors are already experiencing high anxiety about their risk of succumbing to this virus. In addition, people are at home and more isolated than ever because of physical distancing recommendations, perhaps watching the news for hours a day and getting increasingly scared.

Even though time is at a premium right now for many CPAs, carving out time to call clients you know may be isolated or at risk can be instrumental in protecting their often-limited incomes, Webber said.

“It is important to do for the safety of your client,” Webber said. “To keep and maintain that trust in you, you need to be making those communications.”

If you can’t personally place a call, tap an administrative assistant or someone else on your staff to reach out, she said. Or mail a personalized letter that encourages clients to contact the firm with questions or for clarifications.

At the very least, CPAs can send out emails or put up a page on their firm’s website with information taken from the CDC, FTC, or state attorney general’s office.

Reach beyond older clients. CPAs should also spread their fraud prevention efforts beyond older clients by enlisting their wider client base in education efforts.  

Most clients have connections to vulnerable adults, perhaps younger professionals with aging relatives or small business owners with clientele who are older, Webber and Wolverton said.  

Those clients can emphasize to relatives or customers that people are out there looking to profit off personal information and that older adults should run any contributions or requests for money by people they trust.

“CPAs are not going to be the first responders to fraud,” Wolverton said. “The family members are often the first to see a fraud scheme.”

Many local commerce chambers and community and civic groups are also looking to engage with their members during this pandemic, and a talk from a local CPA about fraud could be a welcome topic, Webber said. Offer to host a virtual brown-bag on the topic.

Not only will accountants get chances to help out their communities, but it’s also a chance to show commitments to older clients. That could lead to referrals down the road and signal that your firm goes above and beyond for its elderly clients.

Sarah Ovaska is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, a JofA senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.

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