In any crisis there are going to be bad actors looking to take advantage. The current COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be no different, as scams from phishing emails to price gouging have begun to proliferate around the country.
Fortunately, law enforcement is taking a stand.
On Wednesday, Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley released information for the public detailing scams related to the coronavirus, how to spot them, and how to report them to the FBI, and said they are rapidly increasing as the public health emergency continues.
Following guidance from the FBI, Ms. Dudley identified four categories of scams: selling phony products that don’t exist or don’t work; overcharging for goods in high demand, such as face masks or hand sanitizers; emails supposedly from the World Health Organization or the Center for Disease Control requesting personal information; and bogus charities seeking donations.
Specifically, Ms. Dudley said the FBI warned about fraudulent emails asking for private information. Some pretend to offer an economic stimulus check from the government, while others claim to be from public health organizations like the CDC and WHO offering information on the virus if you click on a link.
County residents should especially be on the lookout for products that claim to prevent, treat, diagnose or cure coronavirus. While it’s too early to know what may treat COVID-19, there certainly has not been science establishing a cure, and so people should be particularly wary of any product purporting to do so, explained Deputy District Attorney Chris Dalbey.
In order to protect against and stop these scams, Ms. Dudley suggested four tips for locals to remember:
- Don’t open attachments or click links within emails from senders you don’t recognize.
- Do not provide your personal information (username, password, date of birth, social security number, etc.) in response to an email or robocall.
- Do not provide your Medicare number to anyone other than your doctor or health care provider.
- Verify the web address of legitimate websites and manually type them into your browser.
The Santa Barbara District Attorney does not investigate these scams, and directs anyone who believes they have been a victim of an internet scam or a cybercrime or wants to report suspicious activity to visit the FBI’s website at www.ic3.gov.
However, the SB DA does investigate price gouging, and asks that any suspected price gouging or other consumer violations be reported to the District Attorney’s Office at 805-568-2300 or by filling out a consumer complaint form on their website and emailing it to ConsumerDA@co.santa-barbara.ca.us.
On March 20, U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said in a press release that the U.S. Attorney’s Office Central District of California is following the direction of Attorney General William Barr to prioritize the investigation and prosecution of coronavirus fraud, and appointed Assistant United States Attorney Joseph O. Johns to be the office’s Coronavirus Fraud Coordinator.
“Our primary goal is to maintain safety and security across the seven counties we serve,” said Mr. Hanna. “Even as we come together as a nation to deal with the threat of COVID-19, there are individuals among us and across the globe who are attempting to use this crisis as an opportunity to exploit our fears and take advantage of our generosity.”
The Department of Justice urged members of the public to report suspected fraud related to the coronavirus by calling the National Center for Disaster Fraud hotline at 1-866-720-5721 or sending complaints to the NCDF e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org.
According to the DOJ, complaints to the NCDF are entered into a central system that can be accessed by all U.S. Attorneys. The NCDF coordinates complaints with 16 additional federal law enforcement agencies, as well as state Attorneys General and local authorities.
The DOJ has already begun to take action alongside the Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration to protect Americans, sending warning letters to seven companies allegedly selling unapproved products that “may violate federal law by making deceptive or scientifically unsupported claims about their ability to treat coronavirus.”
The companies, including “Vital Silver” and “N-ergetics”, advertise products like teas, essential oils, and colloidal silver as able to treat or prevent coronavirus.
However, there are no approved products currently available to treat or prevent the virus, according to the FDA.
“There already is a high level of anxiety over the potential spread of coronavirus,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons. “What we don’t need in this situation are companies preying on consumers by promoting products with fraudulent prevention and treatment claims. These warning letters are just the first step. We’re prepared to take enforcement actions against companies that continue to market this type of scam.”
In addition to the letters, the FTC released a number of tips to avoid scams, including: Hang up on robocalls; don’t press any numbers; ignore online offers for vaccinations and home test kits; fact-check information; and know who you’re buying from.
A full list of the FTC’s tips and more information on their efforts can be found at consumer.ftc.gov/features/coronavirus-scams-what-ftc-doing.