It’s been a story since early January and is likely to remain one for some time: coronavirus.
The global pandemic the world is facing – its epicenter increasingly focused in the United States – is a twofold crisis: medical and economic. It’s an all-hands-on-deck marathon for journalists working steadfastly to bring communities the information to stay not only safe and well, but also as financially secure as possible. While journalists may be beginning to feel burnt out on such a sustained breaking news cycle, so many unknowns leave news consumers eager for clarity and context. Consumer reporters, your communities need you more than ever.
Here are some common questions that journalists can explore in their local markets to help audiences gain understanding:
- Why is the WHO warning people around the world to limit use of cash?
- What, if anything, should investors do during volatile markets influenced by coronavirus uncertainties?
- Which items, in addition to healthcare supplies, may be becoming more expensive due to global supply chain disruptions? Consider not only products commonly imported from China but increasingly global goods. Fabric and clothing items are one example.
- On the other hand, which items may be becoming less expensive, like gas or even lobsters? Look at local industries that heavily export to China and other areas heavily affected by the virus.
- Does your market include areas that depend heavily on tourism? What impacts are local business and hotels seeing?
- Scammers often prey on fears during news events with significant uncertainty. Look into email phishing and other scams in which scammers pretend to be health officials to extract personal information or spread computer viruses. More scam prevention story ideas below.
- A final question which could require a more significant investment of time and more caveats to answer relates to various types of insurance, from health to travel to event insurance. Economic and health disruptions incur costs. Who pays? Many of these questions are not yet answered.
Millions of Americans are out of work as many businesses deemed non-essential have closed. While the government offers resources to help people manage their bills, consumer reporters can dig deeper. Here are some ways to help your audience:
- Look into local internet providers. Many have signed a Keep Americans Connected Pledge, agreeing not to cut off service in the next 60 days for those who cannot pay. Some also offer free or discounted access for households with students. What are providers in your area offering? How can they take advantage?
- Many utility companies are suspending service cutoffs and waiving fees. What are your local utility companies doing?
- Federal stimulus expected to pass is set to suspend federal student loan payments. What about private providers? How can student borrowers defer payments or access relief?
- What about other regular bills like car loans? In many cases, providers may pause or negotiate payments, but it could take a proactive call by the borrower. Help your audience make a list and get strategies to ask for help from each one.
- Your audience likely knows that the deadlines to file and pay federal income taxes have been extended to July 15, 2020. What about state income taxes? It may be worth waiting to file if you will owe. If you expect a refund, know it may take longer than usual to process.
- In addition to scams (covered below), price gouging is becoming a significant issue following (largely unnecessary) runs on grocery and warehouse stores. Price gouging laws vary by state. Find yours here and help your audience through how to report price gouging or what options exist if your state has no price gouging laws.
- Where might drivers who are staying home more and driving less be able to find some savings? Some auto insurance companies are refunding customers in what could be a valuable source of savings.
As upwards of 16 million Americans so far have become unemployed, for many that also means losing access to employer-based health insurance, just when it may be needed most. Where can the uninsured get coverage? What might it cost and cover, or not cover?
Federal stimulus in the works includes some potentially important support for your audience. Unemployment benefits would be increased, lengthened and expanded to include more eligible like contractors and the self-employed. Relief would be offered for federally-backed mortgages. And may Americans could receive checks of up to $1200 per individual and $500 per child, subject to income limits, with eligibility based on 2019 or 2018 tax returns or Social Security statements. The IRS has created a preliminary information page for the pending package, and it will be up to consumer reporters to review the nuances and help their audiences know what support is coming and how to access it. Don’t forget to look closely and state and local stimulus bills, too!
Federal emergency grants and loan forgiveness are also in the works for many small businesses which have been especially impacted. State and local support as well as private support is ramping up too. For example, lending platform Kiva is offering an expanded small business loan program in the United States with zero interest, no fees and a 6-month grace period. Create a database of resources for small businesses in your area.
Scammers prey on uncertainty, so at a time when uncertainty is high, scams increase. Scammers may pose as officials from agencies appearing frequently in the news, like FEMA, the Small Business Administration, IRS, WHO or CDC. Fake coupon offers and fake charity asks are likely growing (check Facebook for viral, but fake, coupon offers). Scammers may try to capitalize on fear by claiming to have medical supplies, cleaning supplies or test kits for sale.
Remind your audience of the best ways to stay safe from scammers:
- Do not pay cash upfront for offers of future loan assistance or other services.
- Don’t give out your information to unsolicited contacts.
- If you’re contacted by someone claiming to be from a particular agency, contact the agency directly by going to their website and using the communications channels listed there rather than responding to the potential scammer.
Weekly Money Matters personal finance content for your newsroom is sponsored by the National Endowment for Financial Education.