Consumer Protection During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — The Federal Trade Commission is warning consumers to watch out for scammers who pretend to offer financial relief from the coronavirus pandemic.

“Scammers follow the headlines and what’s in the headlines right now is COVID-19.“ said Monica Vaca, FTC Associate Director, Bureau of Consumer Protection. 

Vaca said scammers are pitching coronavirus cures without any proof that they work.  “Of course, this is illegal,” she said. “We’re seeing everything from miracle cures, screen offers and home test kits to scams that target people on Medicare,” she said. 

Vaca said fraudsters are following the money and these days a lot of them are pretending to be someone from the government. “They are trying to get peoples’ economic impact payments, those are the stimulus payments that the IRS is sending out, and they are trying to rip off small businesses as well by saying they can get them business loans.”

Scammers use phishing emails and texts to get your money and personal information. Sometimes they provide links to malware sites or malicious websites using domain names that include the word “Coronavirus” or a close misspelling.

Vaca gave an example of a fake website claiming to be the World Health Organization with a link that infects your computer with malware.

“Do not click on a link from a source you don’t know.” Vaca said. She offered consumers a tip when dealing with technology that appears legitimate but isn’t.

“The federal government is not reaching out to you by text message. They’re not reaching out to you by email, phone, or social media to give you your economic relief payment during this pandemic.” The government only communicates in writing or by direct deposit. Contact by any other method is undoubtedly a scam. 

The FTC brought suit against a company recently with a website called SBALoan.com. The people behind the scam claimed to be part of the Small Business Administration (SBA) loan program and had an 888 phone number on their website.  In fact, the SBA had no connection with the phony company. Consumers can stay abreast of what scams the FTC is discovering by going to: www.ftc.gov/coronavirus 

or ftc.gov/coronavirus/business. 

The FTC has received 45,623 overall reports from consumers that in some way are related to COVID-19. The majority of complaints, 26,289, were fraud cases that ripped consumers of for a total of $33.8 million. The median fraud loss was $478.

The top five fraud categories were: travel and vacation, online shopping, text message scams, diet and healthcare products, and Internet information services. The travel and vacation losses totaled more than $12 million and they arose from 7,174 complaints. Most had to do with refunds that were not returned when travel plans were cancelled due to the coronavirus.

Vaca said the number of reports during the pandemic has not increased that much and scammers are using many of the same techniques they have used for years. Those include calls pretending to be government, business, or family and friends.

Robo-calls make up about 3/4 of “Do Not Call” Reports from numbers on the national Do Not Call registry. Consumers get offers for prescription drugs, reducing credit card debt, or warranties and protection plans. 

Credit card scams, mortgage lending, banks and credit unions, credit bureaus, and student loan lending are other top complaint categories.

“Anybody who tells you to pay for any service with bit coin to help you with some coronavirus related problem, that’s a scam,” said Vaca.  “Never give your social security number or bank information or credit card number to anybody who contacts you by phone.” 

Vaca recommends that before giving money or information in response to anything related to the pandemic, stop and talk to somebody. “They can help you sort it out if the offer you just received is false. And if you do wind up paying money for a scam, let us know.”

Vaca said most people who contact the FTC have not lost money but just wanted to report a scam. Vaca says that’s great. “They’ve done the right thing.”

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