Hundreds of Thousands of Americans Targeted by Scammers During Pandemic

NBC Universal, Inc.

While many have been staying home the past six months, scammers have been hard at work. Like many other families, the COVID-19 crisis turned Wil Alveno's Hyattsville, Maryland, home into his office, along with his wife and his daughter.

"We definitely were running out of space," he told the News4 I-Team.

So they decided to put the house up for sale. They moved to a hotel in June, hoping the empty home would attract buyers. Instead, it attracted a series of suspicious events, beginning just two days after their “for sale” sign went up.

A neighbor called to say some guy was at their house taking pictures. Then Wil's realtor got an elaborate email from a local security company, saying it had been asked to provide an "armed guard" at the house, by a man claiming to have "recently purchased" it.

"Yes, that they bought the house. That they just bought this house," said Alveno.

At that point, no one had even looked at the house yet.

The News4 I-Team called and emailed the fake buyer but never heard back.

Days later, a neighbor's security camera captured images of unknown vehicles, including a white van, parked out front.

"Almost, like I said, a look out I guess, because they were staying there the whole time," Alveno said.

That included the afternoon when a pricey package showed up at the house. Inside the box were three new iPhones in the Alveno family's names.

"Somebody orders phones somewhere, and then they had them delivered sometime two days later," said Alveno.

But what the scammers didn't expect was when Wil's daughter stopped by and picked up that package instead — a lucky catch.

"There's no reason why all of these things can be just a coincidence," said Alveno.

There's a good chance it is all connected as many Americans are being targeted.  The Federal Trade Commission said it's received almost 200,000 reports about fraud and identity theft since the Covid-19 crisis started.

"The scammers are out in force. This is like the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NBA Finals, the Masters, the World Cup all rolled up into one big event,” said James Lee with the Identity Theft Resource Center.

He said while realty scams are not new, they're more often tied to commercial properties.

News4 asked him if it’s likely all of the suspicious activities could have stemmed from the Alveno’s listing their house.

"It could very well be because those are public documents, right. So what happens is scammers will see that a house is for sale. They'll verify if it's empty and then they'll use it for any number of illicit activities,” explained Lee.

He went on to say sometimes scammers will pair that property with private information bought on the dark web.

"You can go and buy it right now if you want to do it,” he said. “Ranges anywhere from 50 cents per record to $11 a record."

Lee says with data breaches down this year, he suspects scammers are using up information stolen over the past five years.

"The consequence of that is we, as the owners of that data, are going and changing our passwords. We're going and updating our information. We're doing the things that will frustrate the bad guys so they won't be able to use that information anymore, " said Lee.

Everyone should be doing that regularly, and Lee suggests freezing your credit if you think you've been a victim.

That’s what the Alveno family did, luckily.

"So as soon as we did that, the very next day — and I mean like the very next day — we get an email saying your account has been inquired for a loan," said Alveno.

Someone tried to take out a federal COVID relief loan in his wife's name.

"The thing that really, really, really gets me is that my wife is a hawk on everything that has to do with finances," he said.

Despite all the added stress, Alveno finally got an offer on the house. He just hopes there are no new surprises now that his family is buying their next home.

Find more advice on avoiding coronavirus scams from the Federal Trade Commission here and search your area for FTC complaints here.

Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.

Contact Us