government shutdown scamsUpdated: Jan. 28, 2019

The recently-ended longest government shutdown in U.S. history hurt a lot of different people, but it also allowed another group to thrive: scammers. Important scam watchdogs like the Federal Trade Commission were operating with reduced services, which created a prime opportunity for fraudsters to take advantage of, and the desperation from unpaid federal workers and government contractors only made the situation worse. Currently the government is funded through Feb. 15, though President Donald Trump has said that he’s not ruling out another shutdown, so it may only be a few weeks until America is plagued by an uptick in fraud once again. Fortunately, by learning to recognize the suspect signs these schemes exhibit, you can spot them and steer clear. Whether you work for the government or not, be on the lookout for these government shutdown scams.

Predatory or fake lenders

If the shutdown has affected your job and you’ve missed a paycheck or two, it makes sense to look for a loan to cover your necessities. Be careful of where you get your loan, though, particularly if you’re dealing with online lenders. Not all lenders are completely trustworthy, as some grant loans with terms that are exploitative, full of confusing clauses and fees designed to cost you more money. Other loan offers may be from scammers posing as lenders to steal your personal information or trick you into sending them money. Before taking a loan out with a company, make sure the lender is registered in your state by contacting your state’s bank regulator or your state attorney general’s office. Also, keep an eye out for red flags that are common in loan scams. Be suspicious of lenders that contact you with an offer out of the blue or strongly encourage you to act on an offer immediately. If a lender says it doesn’t need to check your credit, isn’t interested in your financial qualifications or requires you to send an origination fee as a separate payment rather than just tacking it onto your loan amount, you should probably just stop dealing with them.

Fraudulent charities

With cases of financial hardship all over the country, charities are stepping up to help families of affected workers make ends meet. Unfortunately, this also means that scam charities are seizing the opportunity to grub money from unsuspecting donors. Before you donate to any charities promising to help shutdown workers, vet them with charity watchdog groups, such as Charity Navigator, GuideStar and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance. Additionally, don’t respond to unsolicited requests for donations from charities you don’t have any knowledge of, or open links sent to you over email or text as they may lead you to a fake website that can steal your personal information. If you’re looking for a charity to make a donation, try not to use crowdfunding platforms, like GoFundMe, as it’s easy for scammers to set up fraudulent campaigns under false pretenses. A safer bet is to donate goods or volunteer your time with a local organization, such as a food bank or shelter.

Fake check scams

Speaking of fake charities, if you’re an out-of-work employee and you receive an unexpected check that’s supposedly from a charity, government relief program or contest, don’t cash it right away. You could be the target of a fake check scam. A fake check scam involves a swindler sending you a check and asking you to send some money back to them, usually with the explanation that the money you send back will cover taxes, administrative fees or some other cost. When you deposit the fake check, the money will show up in your account quickly, but a few days or weeks after the bank will discover the fraud and remove the funds from your account. If you sent any money back to the scammer, though, they’ll still have it, essentially trading their worthless check for your real cash. On the bright side, there’s an easy way to avoid fake check scams: don’t deposit checks from anyone you don’t know. Even if you don’t send any money back to them, once the check doesn’t clear, you may get hit with a returned check fee from your bank, so it’s best to just stay away from fake checks altogether.

Employment scams

Considering no one knows how long the government shutdown is going to last, it makes sense for furloughed federal workers to look for some kind of temporary work. While you’re searching for a new gig, keep an eye out for employment scams that aim to steal your money or identity. Employment scams promise high hourly rates to do relatively unskilled work, usually from home, and typically advertise as personal assistant positions, mystery shopping positions or business opportunities. Signs of an employment scam are vague job duties and nonspecific required qualifications in the posting, a short job interview conducted only through online chat, a request for you to send the employer money up front and a job application that asks for unnecessary information, like your social security number, driver’s license number or credit card number.

If you’re interested in a real work from home job, trade organizations can be good resources for opportunities, and they’ll help you avoid government shutdown scams. However, they do typically require some kind of degree, certification or specific experience. Common work from home positions include accountants, web developers, IT specialists, virtual call center representatives and translators.

Vishing robocalls

As we’ve mentioned before, the shutdown means the National Do Not Call Registry is unavailable, and the FTC isn’t able to enforce anti-robocalling rules. That means telemarketers could start running even more rampant, bombarding your phone with tons of calls. In addition to legitimate (if annoying) business calls, you may also see a major uptick in vishing (voice phishing), which is a form of phishing conducted over the phone. These scams can take a variety of forms, such as phony tech support calls, false warnings from the IRS and financial offers that are too good to be true. Even worse, the scammers can use a technique called spoofing to make their phone number appear to be any other number they want, like the number of a government agency or a familiar company. If you receive a call you weren’t expecting, don’t follow any prompts that tell you to press buttons, as the scammer may use that press as an excuse to charge you money. Likewise, be wary of any urgent messages telling you to call a number or wire money to resolve a problem. To cut down on the number of robocalls you get, there are a number of apps you can download that can detect the calls and block them.

It’s terrible that people have to deal with opportunistic criminals in addition to the normal problems brought on by a shutdown, but hopefully now you’ll be able to recognize any government shutdown scams that come your way. To find more guides on avoiding fraud, visit our scams blog.