'Tis the season of goodwill (NOT!): Investigating holiday crimes during a pandemic

The coronavirus created more than just health problems, it has led to COVID-related crimes

The holiday season is a fun time for law enforcement. Police department break rooms are packed full of half-eaten leftover pies from Thanksgiving, dried out turkey scraps from yesterday’s dayshift, and inedible cranberry sauce – once plump and gelatinous – now just a puddle of reddish goo next to an open bag of stale dinner rolls.

Mostly everyone – including the criminals – loves the holidays. Your city will likely see an increase in crime, especially white-collar crime, over this year's holiday season. But this year’s increase in crime is going to look a bit different because of nationwide political pressure, low employee morale and, of course, the coronavirus.

COVID-19 has affected us all, and we are all hopeful for significant health improvements in 2021. Unfortunately, the coronavirus created more than just health problems, it led to COVID-related crimes.

COVID-19 has led to an increase in crimes like charitable donation fraud and sweetheart scams that are likely to proliferate this holiday season.
COVID-19 has led to an increase in crimes like charitable donation fraud and sweetheart scams that are likely to proliferate this holiday season. (Getty Images)

COVID crimes are any crimes related to COVID-19. Just as infection rates of COVID-19 will increase well into the winter, so will COVID-related crimes.

Here are four common COVID-related crimes agencies should prepare for during this holiday season:

1. Charitable donation fraud

Charitable donation fraud always increases toward the end of the year. Holidays create a contagious spirit of giving. Even those Ebenezer Scrooge-types who don’t have the spirit of giving may still want to donate more just to claim those end-of-year tax credits.

What adds fuel to the chestnut fire is that charitable donation fraud also increases during high-profile disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes and pandemics. Criminals are using this one-two punch of the holiday season pandemic to really exploit the vulnerable.

Charity donation fraud can come in many forms: emails, cold calls, social media posts and carefully drafted crowdfunding platforms. Criminals can be local, national, or international, making finding the correct jurisdiction that much more difficult.

Investigators should track the money in these cases. Money leads to suspects. Spend a few extra minutes asking your victims how they transferred the money. Cash App, Venmo, Zelle and PayPal are just a few of the preferred methods for criminals.

Investigators should take time to educate the victim. Encourage the victim to always do their homework before giving. They can use Charity Navigator or the IRS’s Tax-Exempt Organization Search to verify the organization's status.

2. Employee embezzlement

Employee embezzlement fraud also increases during the holiday season because of the pressure to buy gifts, pay bills, or keep up with the neighbors.

COVID-19 forced many companies to move to a work-from-home model. Most companies are unfamiliar and unprepared for this monumental shift in the workplace.

Embezzlements and other white-collar crimes increase when employees are left unmonitored at home or if the company does not separate duties. As investigators, ask your victim businesses when they changed to a work-from-home model and what responsibilities the work-from-home employee has.

Police investigators should always be teachers. If you see an overlap in employee duties and those duties should be separated, tell the victim business. Education is the key to prevention.

3. Sweetheart scams

Sweetheart scams are the third most common COVID-related crime. Sweetheart scams increase during holiday seasons and directly after a disaster such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sweetheart scammers target emotions. The pressures from the holidays, COVID-19 stressors and even a sudden loss of a loved one will all leave a victim vulnerable to sweetheart scams. Scammers do not care about the victim. They do not care the victim is stressed, and they really do not care the victim just lost a loved one. They only care about money.

Just like charitable donation scams, investigators should always track the money. They should also ask often-forgotten questions like how long the relationship was and if the victim has recorded conversations or messages.

Investigators can also teach the victim simple ways of avoiding scammers, such as never sending money to someone they have never met in person.

4. Retail theft and return fraud

Retail theft has been around for a long time. People steal, and companies know it. That is why many companies hire loss prevention officers, especially around the holidays. Since COVID-19 mandates, many stores limit the number of patrons that remain inside their store. But what happens when companies limit the number of patrons in their stores. Does retail theft decrease? Not exactly.

Stores are forced to offer added online services like free curbside pickup, free two-day shipping and free extras to lure patrons to their online store. Credit card fraud, as you would expect, naturally increases with the increased online traffic. Retail theft is now shifting from in-person to online.

COVID also stoked the fire on return fraud. Return fraud is a newer type of fraud created because companies allowed receipt-less returns. Shoplifters would steal an item from the store then return it without a receipt for cash or credit. Return fraud was dramatically decreasing because companies started to require a receipt or proof of payment after losing tens of millions of dollars a year. Because of COVID restrictions, many companies relaxed their receipt policy to lure more patrons to their store.

Online discount codes and online coupons only make it worse. Organized criminals buy large amounts of products at a discounted or coupon rate, then return the items to the physical store for full credit. The 10% discount now becomes a 10% profit when returned. Criminals can also make online purchases using stolen credit cards, then return the item for store credit, gift cards, or cash.

I hope when you look at the beautiful white snow of winter, you think of white-collar crime. Yes, 2020 has been challenging for law enforcement, but don’t lose track of what is important. Have fun this holiday season, microwave the stale dinner rolls to make them softer and always be safe.

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