The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has opened the floodgates to scam artists attempting to profit from sick, anxious and financially vulnerable Americans. On the frontlines fighting fraud are the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and other government agencies. Here are some of the fraud schemes they’re actively investigating — and the perpetrators they’ve rounded up.
Peddling false hope
The FTC has sent warning letters to almost 100 businesses for making scientifically unsubstantiated claims about their products. Companies from California to Virginia, Indiana to Florida have touted (mostly online or by phone) “treatments” for COVID-19, even though the federal government hasn’t approved any vaccines or cures for the disease. Letter recipients must stop making deceptive claims immediately and notify the FTC within 48 hours about the actions they’ve taken. Noncompliance can result in a federal court injunction and an order to refund deceived customers. Just last week, the FTC took the seller of a “wellness booster” to court. Originally, the product — capsules containing Vitamin C and herbal extracts — had been marketed as a cancer cure. But the enterprising fraudster pivoted in March 2020 to exploit COVID-19 fears.
Producers and marketers of fake cures aren’t the only companies under scrutiny. The FTC, in joint letters with the Federal Communications Commission, has warned several Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service providers for “assisting and facilitating” illegal telemarketing and robocalls related to COVID-19. This is a violation of the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule. The DOJ has also come down on several VoIP providers for knowingly transmitting robocalls from “government officials.” Although there’s uncertainty about whether VoIP and similar services can be considered liable for the actions of their users, law enforcement officials are clearly serious about taking down those who would exploit the pandemic for personal gain.
Government agencies also have their sights on smaller, opportunistic scams. Recently, the FTC warned consumers to beware of fake COVID-19 testing sites set up in parking lots with realistic looking signs, tents and workers. Not only have these criminals obtained Social Security and credit card numbers from test-seekers, but they may have helped spread contagion through unsanitary contact with them. And the DOJ is raising the alarm about the role cryptocurrency is playing in many COVID-19 schemes. Everyone from snake-oil sellers to bad-investment promoters are asking their victims to pay with cryptocurrency. Therefore, it should be recognized as a red flag.
How to stay safe
Many fraud schemes present since the start of the COVID-19 crisis in the United States — small business loan scams, charity fraud and attempts to steal stimulus payment checks — also continue apace. Your best defense, as always, is to hang up on suspicious calls, delete fake-looking emails and be wary of any claims that sound too good to be true. If you encounter fraud, report it to ftc.gov.