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'It seems like a lifeline, but it's not' | COVID-19 relief scams targeting Carolinians who are looking for help

Here are some tips on how to detect and avoid COVID-19 relief scams according to the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Thanks to the COVID-19 relief package that passed in December 2020, hundreds of millions of dollars will go to replenishing local programs designed to help Carolinians make ends meet. 

There are dozens of programs in the Charlotte area that are offering financial assistance, but it’s not always easy to distinguish what’s legitimate from what’s a scam.

“You have a lot of programs now that offer relief to people and scammers, know that," Karen Moskowitz, consumer attorney for Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, said.

She said they’ve tracked countless pandemic related scams, and there’s been a surge since the latest COVID-19 relief package passed.

“People are desperate; people have lost their jobs," Moskowitz said. "They can't pay the rent, can't pay utilities. And so when they get a call, it seems like a lifeline. They are desperate, and they're ready to try to get help.”

RELATED: Third stimulus check update: Full $1,400 may be limited to $50,000 income

The latest federal COVID-19 relief package allocated $700 million to North Carolina, and that money is being dispersed to dozens of legitimate local programs.

“You can go on our website, the Center for Legal Advocacy, [and] we have a list of some of those programs," Moskowitz said.

There is also a list of official state coronavirus relief programs.

There have also been reports of fake groups popping up, claiming they can help pay your bills.

“What the scammers are usually trying to get is access to some personal identifying information," Moskowitz explained. "They can apply for credit in your name, they can apply for loans in your name.”

Moskowitz said they’ve also seen fraudulent financial assistance applications making the rounds online.

“People shouldn't sign anything," she said. 

But she said most of the scams they’re tracking started as a cold call.

“You're not going to get a cold call from any of these government agencies," Moskowitz said.

Most legitimate assistance programs won’t make random calls, either.

“If you get a cold call, and you're not sure about it, just get their contact information, hang up, and then you can google who you really need to contact," she said.

RELATED: Three fraudsters posed as CMPD officers to scam someone out of money

If you do think you’ve fallen for a scam, Moskowitz suggested putting an alert on your credit and then reporting it to the state.

“Contact the NC Attorney General's Office," Moskowitz outlined. "There is a consumer protection division. They can contact the North Carolina Secretary of State for charitable organizations, or they can call us. We're happy to talk to people if they think something is scammy.”

If you come across something you think may be a scam, you can also email us money@wcnc.com.

Have a relative or friend in another state and want to know when they can get vaccinated? Visit NBC News' Plan Your Vaccine site to find out about each state's vaccine rollout plan.

Here are some tips on avoiding scammers from the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy:

  • Be aware of COVID-19 vaccine scams. Everyone who wants a vaccine can have one and the vaccine will be free for most people. Learn more about COVID-19 vaccine scams here.
  • Don’t answer or hang up on Robo-calls.  Scammers are using robo-calls to pitch fake products, work-from-home schemes and insurance scams. Try to avoid answering the call at all – if it is someone you know they will leave you a voicemail. 
  • Avoid false utility company representatives: Scammers are calling to dupe people out of their cash and personal information by convincing them their utilities will be shut off if they don’t pay. If you get a call from someone claiming to be your utility company, firmly tell them you will contact the utility company directly using the number on your bill or on the company’s website. Even if the caller insists you have a past due bill or your services will be shut off, never give banking information over the phone unless you place the call to a number you know is legitimate. Utility companies neither demand banking information by email or phone nor demand payment by gift cards (like iTunes or Amazon), cash reload cards (like MoneyPak, Vanilla, or Reloadit), or cryptocurrency (like Bitcoin), these are scams.
  • Avoid foreclosure rescue and “we buy homes” scams.  Scammers search public records for homeowners in danger of property tax, mortgage, and HOA foreclosure.   Never sign paperwork on the spot.  Scammers often try to trick homeowners into signing away ownership by signing a deed or other legal documents without disclosing the true nature of the transaction.
  • Be on the alert for Debt-Relief Scams. Avoid companies or out-of-state lawyers that offer to help. Under North Carolina law, it is illegal to collect upfront fees for debt settlement services.  Often these companies do nothing but put you further in debt and damage your credit.
  • Don’t pay someone in advance to help you access benefits.  The government will not ask you to pay anything up front to get the stimulus money. No fees. No charges. No nothing.  See our April 19 post about stimulus payments.
  • Avoid Social Security scams. The government will not call to ask for your Social Security number, bank account, or credit card number. Anyone who does is a scammer. Don’t “verify” your number or be scared into thinking your benefits are about to be suspended.
  • Watch out for phishing emails and texts about the coronavirus that appear to be from health officials, experts, or anyone else. Don’t open messages, click on links, or download attachments from senders you don’t recognize.
  • Be cautious of offers to help get groceries, do errands – there are a number of good Samaritans, but unfortunately there have also been reports of scams, money given, nothing delivered.
  • Beware of “person in need” and grandparent scams. Scammers pose as a grandchild, friend or relative stranded or otherwise in trouble and need money quickly and quietly. They may ask for money by mail or gift card. Don’t be pressured, hang up and call another relative or friend if you are still concerned to help you investigate.
  • Be careful before you donate to a COVID-related charity.  Check legitimacy through the North Carolina Secretary of State, Charity Watch, or Charity Navigator.
  • Be cautious of any unsolicited door-to-door sales pitch or offers.  Don’t sign or agree to anything on the spot – if an offer seems too good to be true it probably is. 

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