Staying Safe During the Pandemic
Protecting Children and Uncovering Scams Center of FBI’s COVID-19 Response
While the COVID-19 crisis has changed so much about daily life, it has also been a boon for criminals and con artists.
But the FBI and our partners are working to protect your family and your wallet.
“The FBI and our law enforcement partner agencies are very much open for business, and we’ve been very successful in finding and prosecuting COVID-related cases,” said FBI Financial Crimes Section Chief Steven Merrill.
Crimes Against Children
Since the onset of the pandemic, school, work, and many other aspects of social life have moved online. And while these tools help keep people connected while they are apart, the FBI has seen a disturbing new crime emerge. Criminals are using virtual meeting platforms like Zoom to broadcast child sexual abuse material to unwitting participants of school, church, or other online gatherings.
The FBI has seen more than 300 of these incidents in the last three months, according to Leonard Carollo, chief of the FBI’s Crimes Against Children and Human Trafficking Unit.
Perpetrators usually target a large, openly publicized Zoom meeting. So if you’re organizing a Zoom meeting, remember to use a password, disable screensharing, and never share a Zoom link on an open social media account or website. Instead, send the link individually to each participant.
If you’ve witnessed the broadcast of child sexual abuse material during a virtual meeting, notify the FBI. Each time child sexual abuse material is viewed, the child involved is re-victimized. That’s why broadcasting these images and videos is a serious violent crime, and the FBI is committed to apprehending both those who distribute the material and those who create these egregious images and videos.
“A participant who inadvertently views these images or videos can also be severely traumatized by just seeing this material,” Carollo said. “These are very young children who are being sexually abused. Our goal is to identify and apprehend the people responsible for these horrific images and videos.”
The FBI is also concerned about a rise in sextortion as children spend more time online and out of school. Carollo encouraged parents to have candid discussions with their children about the dangers of the internet.
“Online child sexual exploitation occurs everywhere, during all times of the year, in big cities and small towns. No one is immune,” Carollo said. “The nature of the internet is people have access to anyone anywhere in the world. So parents need to talk with their children about these online dangers.”
Protecting Your Kids
- Keep an open line of communication with your children about the dangers of the internet.
- Review your children’s internet, cell phone, social media, and video game activity.
- Ensure the children in your life have a trusted adult they can talk to about online safety concerns, whether it’s a parent, a teacher, a coach, or an adult relative.
- Make sure your children know that people online aren’t necessarily who they say they are, and any image or video they share can stay online forever.
- Report it to law enforcement if your child is coerced into providing a sexually explicit image. Make sure your child knows they are a victim and are not in trouble.
Financial Crimes and Scams
Although fraud schemes from the early days of the coronavirus pandemic are still happening, many scammers have now turned their attention to two new targets—unemployment insurance and the Paycheck Protection Program. Merrill says that the FBI is investigating dozens of cases every day of suspected fraud against both programs.
With the Paycheck Protection Program, scammers try to get loans to pay employees they don't have or to support businesses they created just to get government benefits. Criminals are also using stolen identities to file unemployment claims and pocketing the funds for themselves.
The FBI is working closely with other agencies, as well as banks, to uncover this fraud.
Because banks notify the FBI of suspicious activity, many criminals use money mules to hide their crimes. Everyone should learn about money mules and understand that if you’re participating in a scheme like this, you’re supporting criminal activity.
“People receiving and moving money believe they’re doing this for a job or a request of someone, but what they’re doing is collecting criminal proceeds and laundering them,” Merrill said.
Tips from the public have also been vital in investigating these cases, and Merrill encouraged the public to report tips to tips.fbi.gov or ic3.gov.
“Every dollar that is illegally routed to a criminal is money out of the pocket of a small business owner or an employee,” Merrill said. “A lot of businesses operate month to month, so time is of the essence to get this lifeline of support to them. We’re working to get the funds out of the hands of criminals and back to those who deserve them.”
Protecting Your Wallet
- Learn about common scams and how they work.
- Get medical treatment information from trusted sources like cdc.gov, your doctor, your pharmacist, or your local health department.
- Be wary of unsolicited offers or requests for information, particularly in emails or text messages.
- Don’t be a mule. Money mules may think they’re working a job or helping a friend, but if you’re moving money through your own bank account, you’re helping criminals.
- Report tips about fraud schemes to tips.fbi.gov.
- Report online crime to ic3.gov.
- For accurate and up-to-date information on COVID-19, please visit coronavirus.gov and cdc.gov/coronavirus.
- Learn about the Department of Justice’s response at justice.gov/coronavirus.
- Learn more about what the federal government is doing at usa.gov/coronavirus.