By Martha Simmons
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist
Feeling fearful, broke and lonely as a result of the current coronavirus crisis?
That’s just where the scammers want you.
From your personal safety to your bank accounts, your video chats with your grandchildren to your cell phone, crooks are using the emotional effects of the crisis to take advantage of unwitting victims.
A peek into this writer’s email spam folder found dozens of coronavirus-related pitches sent during a two-week period attempting to strike fear in the reader’s heart and snake their way into her pocketbook.
Offers included free cell phones, pandemic survival kits, surgical masks, oxygen equipment, personal loans up to $100,000, home security systems, guns, free apps to install on your cell phone and computer, and money for food and unemployment.
All one has to do to take advantage of such offers — whether originating by email, phone or social media — is to give up some personal information, click on a link, pay a small fee or trust that the purveyor of much-sought-after goods will actually ship you the stuff you just paid for with your debit or credit card. Then BAM! You’ve been had.
“Throughout the country, U.S. Attorneys’ Offices have received reports of individuals and businesses engaging in a wide range of fraudulent and criminal behavior,” the U.S. Department of Justice reported.
Some examples include:
- Robocalls making fraudulent offers to sell respiratory masks with no intent of delivery
- Social media scams fraudulently seeking donations or claiming to provide stimulus funds if the recipient enters his or her bank account information
- Sales of counterfeit or fake testing kits, cures, ‘immunity’ pills and protective equipment
- Fraudulent offers for free COVID-19 testing to obtain Medicare beneficiary information that is used to submit false medical claims for unrelated, unnecessary or fictitious testing or services
- Seeking donations fraudulently for illegitimate or nonexistent charitable organizations
- Medical providers obtaining patient information for COVID-19 testing and then using that information to fraudulently bill for other tests and procedures.
To avoid being victimized, the Federal Trade Commission offers this advice:
- Hang up on robocalls. Don’t press any numbers, even if the caller claims it will allow you to speak to a live operator or remove your number from call lists.
- Ignore online offers for vaccinations and home test kits, as there currently are no products proven to treat or prevent this virus, and no FDA-authorized home test kits.
- Fact-check information before you believe it or share it. Visit “What the U.S. Government is Doing” at usa.gov/coronavirus for links to federal, state and local government agencies.
- Know who you’re buying from. Online sellers may claim to have in-demand products, like cleaning, household and health and medical supplies when, in fact, they don’t.
- Don’t click on links from sources you don’t know as they could download viruses onto your computer or device.
- Don’t open emails claiming to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other experts. Instead, visit the websites of the CDC and the World Health Organization for the latest information.
- Do your homework when it comes to donations, whether through charities or crowdfunding sites. Know where you are donating to. Don’t let anyone rush you or convince you to offer donations in cash, by gift card or by wiring money.
The Department of Justice is stepping up enforcement activities in the face of fraud related to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The Attorney General has directed all federal law enforcement, litigating divisions and U.S. Attorneys to coordinate and work closely with state and local authorities to ensure that misconduct is reported as quickly as possible and that all appropriate enforcement tools are available to punish it,” the DOJ stated on its website.
People who think they have been victimized by a scam or suspect an attempted fraud are urged to report it to:
- National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721 or email to email@example.com
- FBI at tips.fbi.gov
- For cyber scams: ic3.gov/default.aspx
DOJ also is working with other federal agencies and state and local law enforcement to investigate and prosecute illegal hoarding and price-gouging in the sale of critical and scarce medical supplies, pharmaceuticals, equipment and materials.