Con Watch: Confusion with Stimulus Payment Debit Cards

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

Con Watch: Coronavirus Stimulus Check Scams

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 27th, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) was signed into law. A significant part of this legislation provides checks of up to $1,200 per person that will be sent to most Americans. Direct deposit payments are expected to start April 13th, and the mailing of paper checks will start May 4th.

Scammers have been waiting for weeks for this law to be passed, and they are ready to strike. Posing as government employees, they may contact you by phone, email, and text message asking you to pay a fee in order to receive your government check. Or they may ask for your Social Security number, bank account number, or credit card number in order for you to qualify for a payment. 

The truth is that you do not have to do anything to qualify for a payment. You do not need to pay a fee. You do not need to apply for your check. You do not need to provide any personal information. Your eligibility will be determined by the IRS. Then your check will be either wired directly into the same bank account you use to receive your income tax refund or sent to you by mail if your past income tax refunds were mailed. It is as simple as that.

Trust me, you can’t trust anyone. Remember, whether by phone, email, or text message, you cannot be sure who is really contacting you. Even if your Caller ID indicates the call is from a legitimate federal agency such as the Treasury Department, it is easy for a scammer to “spoof” that number and make it appear as coming from a legitimate source even if the call is coming from another number.

Scammers posing as IRS or Treasury Department employees are also sending emails and text messages with links and attachments that purport to provide important information you need in order to receive your stimulus payment. However, these links or attachments are really malware such as ransomware or keystroke logging malware. Neither the IRS nor the Treasury Department will be contacting you by email or text message. For information you can trust about the stimulus checks, visit the IRS website.

The Treasury Department is presently working on a website where you can provide your bank account information to the IRS if you had previously had your income tax refund sent to you by mail, but now wish to have the relief check sent electronically to your bank account. If you had already provided your bank account information to the IRS in your 2018 or 2019 income tax return, you do not need to provide this information again. The new website will also enable you to check on the status of your stimulus check.

The IRS will also be mailing a confirmation letter to payment recipients within fifteen days after the payment was made. The letter will provide information about what to do if you have not received your payment.

These are difficult times, and they are made more difficult by scammers with no conscience. But armed with some knowledge about how the stimulus check program works you can avoid becoming a victim.

Featured image: Shutterstock