Scammers want to steal your stimulus check — here's what you should know

Someone may be trying to steal your check, your identity or both.
Old elderly senior person learning computer and online internet skills protect money scam and fraud
Do you know how to spot a counterfeit Treasury check?Getty Images stock

More than 80 million Americans were expected to receive coronavirus relief checks last week, according to the Treasury Department, as part of the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

An estimated 171 million payments are expected to go out overall, but with some 26 million Americans now requesting unemployment benefits since the coronavirus pandemic, scammers are looking to take advantage of people desperate to get their funds quickly.

According to a memo from the House Ways and Means Committee, the IRS would begin issuing paper checks this week at a rate of about 5 million per week, which could take up to 20 weeks, starting with people with the lowest incomes.

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If you’re still waiting for your check, it’s important to remain vigilant during the process. Follow these precautions:

1. Beware of counterfeit checks.

With relief checks going out by mail as of April 20 to an estimated 101 million people, be on the lookout for counterfeits. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, if your check comes in the mail with an odd amount, particularly if there are extraneous cents, your check could be counterfeit. Additionally, if the check asks you to call a number or verify information over the phone in order to cash the check, the CFPB says that is a sure sign of counterfeit, since the IRS will never ask you to say your personal information over the phone. If this has happened to you, the CFPB says you can notify the IRS at phishing@irs.gov.

The Secret Service in partnership with the Treasury Department has issued guidelines on how to spot counterfeits. Genuine checks have a Treasury seal to the right of the Statue of Liberty, with security ink that bleeds and turns red when moisture is applied, among other measures.United States Secret Service

In partnership with the Treasury Department, the Secret Service explained how to identify a genuine check. Look for the following features:

  • Treasury Seal: This new seal can be found to the right of the Statue of Liberty and says “Bureau of the Fiscal Service.” It replaces the old seal that said “Financial Management Service" (which will remain in rotation until stock runs out).
  • Bleeding Ink: The Treasury seal, located to the right of the Statue of Liberty, uses black security ink that will run red and bleed when moisture is applied to it.
  • Watermark: All U.S. Treasury checks are printed on watermarked paper. The watermark — showing “U.S. TREASURY” — can be seen from both front and back when held up to a light. Any check without this watermark, which can't be reproduced with a copier, is likely a counterfeit or a copy.
  • Ultraviolet Overprinting: Genuine checks have a protective UV pattern that is invisible to the naked eye, consisting of lines of “FMS” bracketed by the FMS seal on the left and the U.S. Seal (eagle) on the right. The pattern can usually be found under the payee information and dollar amount area. The FMS pattern and seals can be seen under a black light. As of 2013, the Treasury Department introduced a new UV pattern that says “FISCALSERVICE" across four lines. Either one of these UV patterns can be seen.
  • Microprinting: As the name suggests, microprinted words appear so small that they look like a line to the naked eye. A genuine Treasury check has the microprinted words “USAUSAUSA" on the back. When a check is counterfeited, this will often show up as a solid line or series of dots.
  • Economic Impact Payment: These checks will have the following information located on the lower right side of the Statue of Liberty: “Economic Impact Payment President Donald J. Trump.”

2. Never give out your personal information.

The IRS has issued relief payments, dubbed “economic impact payments," to taxpayers using direct deposit. The government agency is able to do this by looking at the bank information it already has on file when depositing tax refunds. If you don't already have direct deposit information on file, the IRS will send you a paper check in the mail.

"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 statement. So if someone calls asking for your personal bank information, don't give it to them. The same rule goes for fishy text messages or emails. If scammers are able to obtain your personal information, they could access more than your stimulus check.

3. Don't respond to threatening phone calls.

Everyone has received unsolicited phone calls or blocked a sketchy number. Keep that same guard up should anyone call you about your relief check.

The Federal Communications Commission has audio samples of calls from scammers, including ones "claiming to be from the 'FCC Financial Care Center' and offering $30,000 in COVID-19 relief," according to the agency's site. Some will even claim to have information about student loans or free, at-home test kits you can purchase.

If you are receiving repeated threatening phone calls, the FCC recommends you contact law enforcement or your bank immediately.

4. Don't believe claims that a "processing fee" will speed up the check retrieval process.

According to the Better Business Bureau, any message that claims you can get your money faster by entering your personal information for a small "processing fee" is a scam. "A real government agency will not ask you to pay an advanced processing fee," according to the nonprofit's site.

There is an official list of government grants you can access here.

There have also been reported cases of landlords harassing or threatening tenants for rent payments now that stimulus checks have been distributed.

Anyone can access the Get My Payment tool launched by the IRS and Treasury Department since it only requires that basic information like your birthdate, street address, name and Social Security number. Because of this, landlords have been able to access information about their tenants' checks from information that they had previously provided upon signing a lease or applying to rent.

According to the IRS, unauthorized use of the tool, which includes inputting someone else’s personal information to check the status of a relief payment, is illegal. If this happens to you, consider filing a police report.