BALTIMORE — The government provided assistance to many Americans during the pandemic but be skeptical of any offers for free money through federal grants.
A Maryland woman received a Facebook message from an old high school friend about a grant she was recently awarded. That convinced her to apply.
She contacted the man her friend had been in contact with. He provided an official looking badge and long description about the grant process. He said it wasn’t a loan. She wouldn’t have to pay anything back. This was a grant from the Trusts Community Foundation Fund, and if approved, she can use it on whatever she’d like.
She believed that her friend benefitted from it, so she filled out the application answering questions like next of kin, phone carrier, bank account balance, IRA balance, and how she wanted to receive payment.
After sending a copy of her driver’s license, she was approved. She could choose how much grant money she’d like, up to $5 million. And she’d only be responsible for a shipping fee, which was a fraction of the grant amount.
She asked if she could pay by credit card, the man claiming to be Dick Durbin, the Senior Senator from Illinois responded, “definitely not.”
She became more skeptical and the scammer became more desperate. Then she shut him down.
“Anything that requires you to send money before you receive money, yah, that’s a delete,” said Bill Sieglein, a cybersecurity expert and former U.S. intelligence official.
Sieglein said his mom received a similar message.
“She said a friend of hers was getting all this money from grants, it was grant money, and she had to send a little bit of money but she got a lot of money. And I said, mom, she’s lying to you. She never got any money, she sent money and she’s waiting for it,” Sieglein said.
And it’s possible that friend wasn’t the one sending those messages.
“On social media someone does what’s called account hijacking where they’ve gotten the credentials and actually take over your account, or they’ve created one that looks just like yours. It’s not hard to find a photo of you online, I can put that on an account, make it look just like yours, almost the same name and then start friending all the same people,” said Sieglein.
Sieglein added that it's easy to vet these offers.
“Does it seem like it’s coming from a government agency email address? Then go research it, look it up online,” Sieglein said.
Federal grants exist, but they’re usually given to specific programs, and to local governments, organizations, universities, not individuals. The government also doesn’t charge fees to apply for grants.
If you spot a scam, report it to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.