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Scam artists love troubled times. As the coronavirus pandemic has spread, so have the activities of con artists.
The first wave of these scams, back in February and March, tended to be snake-oil salesmen hawking products they claimed were effective in treating COVID-19. At the time, the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration singled out seven of them, saying the makers of these products had no evidence to back up their claims.
A prominent name on that list was Jim Bakker, a popular Christian televangelist in the 1970s who became entangled in a sex scandal and spent five years in prison for fraud. Since his release in 2003, he's been hosting a program called The Jim Bakker Show on the PTL Satellite Network and in February he began promoting a product called Silver Solution, suggesting it could successfully treat people infected by the virus.
The federal agencies told Bakker and the others on the list to halt sales, and the attorneys general of Missouri and Arkansas both filed lawsuits. On March 11, Silver Solutions was removed from the program's online store.
Since then, however, coronavirus scams have taken a different form. As the pandemic has forced many companies to close and tens of millions of employees to lose their jobs, the con artists are trying to exploit economic pain.
In September, the FTC reported that Americans had lost $145 million to coronavirus-related fraud.
One of the con artists' primary targets were the $1,200 stimulus checks approved by Congress in late March. Some scammers offered their victims promises of faster check deliveries if they paid a fee. Others used the “fake check ploy," where scammers sent out legitimate-looking fake checks for more than $1,200. The recipients would then be contacted, told a mistake had occurred, and that they needed to send back the excess amount in cash or a money transfer.
“Phishing" attacks, through which scammers send email or text messages to try to gain personal information that might give them access to people's bank or other accounts, are becoming increasingly sophisticated. A recent one spotted by the cybersecurity firm Armorblox exploited the Internal Revenue Service, the coronavirus, and SharePoint in one swoop. The recipient was told that “IRS COVID relief funds" were available by clicking a link that took them to a SharePoint form that asked for a variety of personal information.
Phishing is also done via websites that pretend to be humanitarian or government organizations promising vaccines or other aid. The Justice Department has shut down hundreds of these sites.
In addition, some phishing scammers pose as contact tracers, the people who follow up with anyone who may have had contact with someone known to have COVID-19. Using that ruse, these scammers attempt to obtain their targets' personal information.
Another new ploy is job scams, which can take different forms. One variant is a phishing effort where you apply for a nonexistent job by providing extensive personal information.
Another is known as a “reshipping scam," where you work from home to unwittingly assist scammers in shipping products purchased with stolen credit cards. Not only do promised payments for the work never materialize; the scammer now has the victims' Social Security number and other personal information.
In addition to the people who are just trying to make ends meet during the pandemic, investors also need to be on heightened alert about pandemic scams. The North American Securities Administrators Association and the U.S. Financial Industry Regulatory Authority recently issued a warning to investors about the threat of scams. “With the world focused on the Covid-19 pandemic, fraudsters continue to peddle supposed miracle cures or purportedly innovative technologies are preying upon unsuspecting investors," the warning said.
As if we need more to worry about these days, everyone needs to be extra careful that they are not victimized by scammers.
The Federal Trade Commission has released a simple guide to help people avoid coronavirus scams:
You can also keep tabs on what scammers are up by subscribing to the FTC's consumer alerts.
Meanwhile, if you have been victimized by a scammer, it's important to report it to law enforcement. The U.S. Justice Department's National Center for Disaster Fraud provides a complaint form that you may fill out and submit. In addition, most state attorney general's offices have consumer protection divisions that may also provide reporting forms, such as this one from Minnesota.