How to protect yourself from stimulus check scams

Young woman in her kitchen reading about stimulus check scams on her cellphone Image: Young woman in her kitchen reading about stimulus check scams on her cellphone

In a Nutshell

As the federal government pumps cash into the economy through a $2 trillion stimulus program, fraudsters are hustling to steal payments from those who need it most. Here are some common stimulus check scams to watch out for and some tips for how to protect yourself.

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With the government working to get payments from the coronavirus relief package into people’s hands, scammers are trying new schemes to make off with your money.

The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which was signed into law in March, includes direct payments to many Americans. Most individuals who earn up to $75,000 a year qualify for a one-time payment of $1,200.

Those stimulus checks — also known as recovery rebates — are a tempting target for criminals. Government officials across the country are warning of stimulus check scams. We’ll review some common scams you might see — and how you can protect yourself.

Looking for debt-relief options related to the coronavirus? Check out our resources.



4 examples of stimulus check scams

If you’re expecting a stimulus payment, here are some signs that a fraudster is targeting you.

1. You receive what looks like a check in the mail with instructions to call a number or verify information online in order to cash it.

How do you know this is a scam? The IRS will never ask you for your personal information by phone, email, text or social media.

The IRS typically issues payments via direct deposit since the agency already has most people’s bank account information from tax filings. But roughly 100 million Americans will get their checks by mail. The IRS began sending out paper checks the week of April 20 and will issue about 5 million checks a week over a 20-week period.

Scammers may send out official-looking checks to get people to reveal their personal information, which gives the scammers a way to steal from them.

2. You receive an official-looking check for more money than you were expecting — say, for $4,000. An IRS agent calls, saying you can keep your $1,200 payment and return the excess.

How do you know this is a scam? The IRS won’t overpay and make you return the money by paying cash, wiring money or paying with gift cards — all signs of a scam. This kind of fake check scam can take weeks to be discovered. And when it is, you’ll be stuck paying the money back to your bank.

3. A government worker calls you to verify personal and/or banking info, saying it’s needed for you to get your economic impact payment. Caller ID says ‘IRS,’ with the agency’s phone number.

How do you know this is a scam? Again, the IRS won’t ask for your personal info by phone, email, text or social media. Caller ID doesn’t mean the call is official — crooks can replicate a government agency’s name and number on caller ID.

4. You receive an IRS call, text, email or postcard with an online password that you can use to ‘access’ or ‘verify’ your payment or direct deposit info.

How do you know this is a scam? The government will never call, text or email you asking for money or personal information, including your Social Security, bank account or credit card numbers.

How can I protect myself from scams?

The IRS is urging everyone to be on the lookout for calls and email phishing scams tied to economic impact payments.

“The IRS isn’t going to call you asking to verify or provide your financial information so you can get an economic impact payment or your refund faster,” said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig in a press release.

Be skeptical of anyone requesting money or personal information by email, text message, website or social media.

Don’t give out personal information

Here are some important things to know about how the IRS communicates.

  • The IRS won’t contact you by phone, email, text message or social media with information about your stimulus payment.
  • The IRS won’t call to ask for your Social Security number, bank account number or credit card number.
  • The IRS won’t ask you to pay anything upfront to get your economic impact payment.
  • The IRS won’t tell you to deposit your stimulus check and send money back because it paid you more than it owed you.

The DOJ says that if you receive a call from a federal agency requesting personal information, hang up. As with any scam telephone call, don’t push any buttons for “more information.” If you receive a text message or an email asking for personal information, delete it and don’t click on any links within the message.

If someone who appears to be from the IRS (or an organization associated with the IRS, like the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System) contacts you by phone call, email, text or through social media, you should notify the IRS at phishing@irs.gov.

You can also report scams to the Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov/complaint.

Meanwhile, the IRS provides up-to-date information about stimulus payments. And if you’d like to receive you funds electronically rather than by mail, you can enter your bank account information at the agency’s Get My Payment portal. You can also check the status of your stimulus payment.

Be wary of text messages and emails

If you’re getting an economic impact payment, the IRS won’t reach out to you by text, phone, email or social media. Below are government recommendations to avoid getting scammed.

Here’s what to do if you receive a suspicious text.

  • Don’t click on any links. If you click on a link, you might be downloading malware that adds your phone number to a list that could be sold to other crooks.
  • Immediately delete those text messages.

Here’s what to do if you receive a suspicious email.

  • Don’t click on links or download attachments. Doing so could infect your devices with malicious software designed to steal your personal information or lock your computer until you pay a ransom.

Beware of counterfeit checks

Working with the Treasury Department, the Secret Service describes how to verify that your stimulus check is genuine.

  • Treasury seal: A new seal to the right of the Statue of Liberty should say “Bureau of the Fiscal Service,” replacing the old seal that said “Financial Management Service.”
  • Bleeding ink: Ink from the Treasury seal will run and turn red when moistened.
  • Watermark: When held up to the light, a watermark that can be seen from both front and back reads “U.S. TREASURY.”
  • Ultraviolet overprinting: A protective UV pattern that’s invisible to the naked eye has lines of “FMS” bracketed by the FMS seal on the left and the U.S. seal (eagle) on the right.
  • Microprinting: The back of the check says “USAUSAUSA.”
  • Economic impact payment: “Economic Impact Payment President Donald J. Trump” appears on the lower right side of the Statue of Liberty.

Next steps

The stimulus payments make a tempting target for scammers trying to rip people off. With high-pressure techniques, they’ll try to get their victims to act quickly without thinking. But slowing down and taking the time to check information through unbiased sources can help you avoid getting swindled.


Debt-relief options related to the coronavirus

If you’re having a hard time keeping up with your bills because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re not alone. Millions of Americans have experienced layoffs, furloughs and cut hours at work, which may make it difficult for many to pay rent, mortgages, auto loan bills, utilities, credit card bills and more.

But the federal government, along with some mortgage, auto loan and credit card issuers, has announced measures that might help relieve some financial burden and help you manage your payments and debt. Below is a summary of those resources.

Government relief measures

Relief measures from lenders and credit card issuers

General tips on budgeting and paying down debt

If you’re looking for general tips on how to budget or navigate your debt, we can help you with that, too. Check out some of these advice articles.