Con Watch: Confusion with Stimulus Payment Debit Cards

Many people are receiving debit cards in the mail purporting to be stimulus payments from the federal government. How can you tell if it’s a scam?

Debit cards

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Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor, author, and one of the country’s leading experts in cybersecurity, identity theft, and scams. See Steve’s other Con Watch articles.

On March 27 the CARES Act was signed into law to help people financially affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Under the CARES Act, qualifying people receive payments of as much as $1,200 per person, with additional payments of $500 for qualifying dependent children. In the program’s first four weeks, the Treasury Department electronically sent more than $200 billion of CARES Act stimulus payments to approximately 130 million Americans.

Starting on April 13, people who had provided their bank account number and bank’s routing number to the IRS as a part of their federal income tax return had their payments sent to their bank accounts electronically.

After May 18, the federal government began sending paper checks and prepaid debit cards to those people qualifying for the stimulus payments who did not provide bank account information on their most recent federal income tax return. At first it was thought that only people who were eligible for a CARES Act payment who hadn’t filed an income tax return would be getting the debit card. But now the Bureau of Fiscal Service (part of the Treasury Department), is issuing debit cards to many others. Most households were expecting a check, not a debit card, and many didn’t even know that these federal debit cards existed.

This has created a problem, as people receiving debit cards think that the card is a scam. Their reactions aren’t surprising: to activate the card, you are asked to provide your name, address, and Social Security number. This has the markings of a scam where criminals send phony debit cards and lure people into providing information that can lead to identity theft.

So how do you know if the card you receive is legitimate?

The legitimate cards are Visa debit cards, and the back of the card has the logo for MetaBank. It is being sent in a plain envelope that does not indicate that it is being sent by the federal government, but rather from “Money Network Cardholder Services.”  Along with the debit card will be a letter from the Treasury Department indicating that the debit card is being sent in lieu of a paper check. The letter will also contain the 800 number and the website for you to use to activate the card. Make sure you are using the official website or 800 number and not that of a scammer. The only official website to use to activate the card or to get further information about the card is, and the only phone number to use is 800-240-8100.

When you activate your card, whether online or over the phone, you will need to provide the last six digits of your Social Security number along with the three-digit security code on the back of the card. You may be asked for further information to confirm your identity. At the time of activation, you will also be prompted to create a four-digit PIN that can be used for ATM transactions or enable automated assistance. Debit cards sent to married couples will contain the name of both spouses, but may be activated only by the spouse listed first on the card.

The debit card is referred to as an EIP Card, which stands for Economic Impact Payment Card. It can be used at stores, online, to get cash from an ATM, and even to deposit funds into your bank account.

Scammers are using the CARES Act stimulus payments as a basis for many scams.  It is important to remember that neither the IRS, the Treasury Department, nor any other federal agency will contact you by phone, email, or text message about the stimulus payments. Anyone contacting you in this manner who says they are a federal employee is a scammer, and you should not provide them with any personal information.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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