Coronavirus scams have grown exponentially since the start of the pandemic, due to a new group of hackers obtaining private information through phony websites, fake government calls and phishing emails.

American consumers have already lost more than $12 million to coronavirus-related scams, according to a recent Federal Trade Commission report, likely causing more financial harm to those who are already struggling during the coronavirus era.

Paige Hanson, NortonLifeLock chief of cyber safety education, says those that are filing for unemployment or waiting for stimulus checks from the government, and seniors with medical bills are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 scams right now.

“Scammers are texting, emailing and calling people, claiming to be from the government. They’ll say they have a check ready for you, but might ask you to provide your social security number or bank account information,” Hanson said. “There’s a similar scam targeting seniors that alerts them that they’ve qualified for a COVID-19 grant designed to help seniors pay for their medical bills.”

With the rise of fear and uncertainty due to the pandemic, it has become a prime time for hackers and scammers to prey on peoples’ vulnerabilities.

Theresa Payton, CEO of Fortalice Solutions and author of “Manipulated: Inside the Cyberwar to Hijack Elections and Distort the Truth,” says scammers are watching the headlines and using what they know about COVID-19 to target all groups of people.

“Not wanting to let a global crisis go to waste, we have seen cybercriminals follow an ‘all of the above’ target strategy and hit the elderly and children with clickbait headlines that turn into identity theft and scams,” Payton explains.

Similarly, Payton says scammers will try to trick adults into clicking links and opening attachments that allow enough opportunity to steal money or private information.

“For adults, the main target is to figure out who the person works for and work on their anxieties about COVID-19 to trick them,” Payton said.

Payton says wire transfer fraud has also grown exponentially during the pandemic, and it’s mostly hitting residential real estate sales and accounts payable departments at companies.

How to dodge COVID-19 scams

If you’re worried about coronavirus scams, here’s everything you need to know to avoid them.

Be wary of offers that insist you to act now

Scams come in many forms, but they all have one thing in common — a sense of urgency. If you’ve received an email, text or call telling you to act immediately on something, then it’s likely a scam.

“Scammers often try to create a sense of false urgency or demand immediate action, preying on your fear or concerns to get you to click on a bad link or provide personal information,” Hanson said.

Don’t respond to suspicious communications

It’s important to know that the government will not call, text or email you to ask for your personal information. Hanson suggests ignoring or deleting any texts or emails asking for your information.

“The government won’t reach out to you on social media, either,” Hanson said. “If you see a post claiming to be from a government agency, it’s likely a scam and you should ignore it. A coronavirus-themed phone call or email that asks for sensitive information is a sure scam.”

Secondly, you should never give out your personal information over the phone, email or text message, and the same principle applies for banking and credit card information.

Hanson also points out that many scam emails or text messages tend to be riddled with spelling and punctuation errors. Plus, watch out for generic greetings such as, “Dear sir or madam,” since that usually signals that it’s fake. Hanson says phishing emails won’t usually use your name.

Do your research

One of the best ways to avoid a scam is to make sure you do your research. Hanson says you should always research any government agency that contacts you to determine if it is real or fake, and that it’s critical to make sure a link or file is legitimate before opening it.

“Remember, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is,” Hanson said. “Cybercriminals are experts at creating fake sites, emails or profiles that look identical to legitimate government agencies or organizations.”

What do I do if I suspect I’m being scammed?

If you suspect you’re being scammed or become the victim of a scam, you should report it to the Federal Trade Commission or the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

“This information helps inform the agency about new scans, in turn helping them warn the public on how to stay safe and even identify scammers,” Hanson said.

Payton says one way to avoid them as a business is to contact your email provider and ask to block certain scam emails.

“Consider blocking or quarantining emails that have COVID-19 or coronavirus in the message and have someone manually review and release those,” Payton said.