Column: An ‘unprecedented proliferation’ of coronavirus scams is sweeping the nation
There you are, sitting at home near the phone or in front of your computer, working remotely or just trying to stave off boredom amid the pandemic.
That makes you typical of many if not most Americans.
It also makes you a sitting duck.
Just ask Phil Moore. The 73-year-old told me the other day that he’s now getting about 10 scam calls a week, typically using a “spoofed” phone number designed to trick his caller ID system.
“It just blows me away that the government hasn’t done a thing about it,” Moore said with barely contained anger.
In fact, government officials are well aware that not only are scam calls on the rise as a result of so many of us being stuck at home, but there’s been a steady increase in rackets involving the coronavirus and COVID-19.
The Federal Trade Commission told lawmakers on Capitol Hill recently that it has received more than 131,000 complaints to date relating to the pandemic.
Among issues raised by consumers, the agency said, are complaints involving “unsubstantiated health claims, robocalls, privacy and data security concerns, sham charities, online shopping fraud, phishing scams, work at home scams, credit scams, and fake mortgage and student loan relief schemes.”
Not least among these concerns, the FTC said, is the rise of “government impostors attempting to scam consumers out of their stimulus checks.”
“It is often the case that, following reports of a health scare, deceptive advertising or marketing touting ‘miracle cures’ quickly emerge,” Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, testified at a U.S. Senate hearing.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has put this cause-and-effect scenario into overdrive,” he said.
Like Moore, I’ve been receiving a ton of scammy robocalls lately, typically in the form of a recording masquerading as an actual call from a credit card company or warranty servicer.
The Irvine tech company YouMail, which tracks robocalls on a monthly basis, says Americans received 3.3 billion robocalls in June. That translates to more than 111 million a day or 4.6 million robocalls per hour.
I reported recently that the volume of robocalls seemed to be down because the coronavirus had shuttered overseas call centers. Experts told me this wouldn’t last long because robocall firms would figure out how to get back in business.
Apparently they have.
As for dubious coronavirus health claims, look no further than my recent column on the dozens of complaints received by California officials regarding chiropractors claiming they can remedy either the coronavirus or COVID-19.
They can’t. In fact, the Canada-based World Federation of Chiropractic, representing chiropractors in 89 countries, declared in March that “there is no credible scientific evidence that chiropractic spinal adjustment/manipulation confers or boosts immunity.”
Yet many dubious businesspeople continue to prey on people’s fears of the pandemic, promising safe harbor when what they’re really offering is to sink your financial boat.
The FTC’s Smith cited in his testimony the example of Marc Ching, a Southern California entrepreneur with a controversial history as an animal-rights activist.
As I wrote in April, Ching agreed to a preliminary order from the FTC barring him from claiming that any product sold by his Sherman Oaks supplements company, Whole Leaf Organics, “treats, prevents or reduces the risk of COVID-19; or treats cancer; or cures, mitigates or treats any disease.”
The agency’s complaint against Ching included a screenshot from the Whole Leaf Organics website touting one of his supplements as “the perfect way to strengthen your immunity against pathogens like COVID-19, the coronavirus.”
These sorts of pitches also have caught the attention of the Food and Drug Administration.
“Our experience with previous outbreaks such as swine flu and avian influenza has shown that fraudulent cures or elixirs will emerge during any public health crisis, sold by unscrupulous actors capitalizing on the fears of vulnerable consumers,” Catherine Hermsen, a senior FDA official, told lawmakers.
“In the past months, we have seen an unprecedented proliferation of fraudulent products related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and more than ever before, the internet is being used as the primary vehicle for marketing these unproven products,” she said.
The credit reporting agency TransUnion said in a recent report that online scams such as phishing and bogus charities are on the increase because of the pandemic, and that 9% of U.S. consumers have been victimized by fraud since the outbreak of the coronavirus.
“Fraudsters are always looking to capitalize on major events to carry out their schemes, and it has become apparent through our research that COVID-19 is an exceptionally major event for fraud,” Shai Cohen, TransUnion’s senior vice president of global fraud and identity solutions, told me.
The FTC and consumer advocates say it’s especially important at a time like this to keep your guard up. That includes:
- Hanging up on robocalls. Also, ask your phone-service provider what resources are available to help keep scammers at bay, such as filters like Nomorobo.
- Ignoring anyone who claims they have a cure for the coronavirus or COVID-19. No such thing yet exists.
- Not falling for any scheme that involves sending money to someone you don’t know. And if you’re ever instructed to make a payment using gift cards, walk away.
- Never giving personal information — particularly financial info — to strangers.
- Paying no attention to anyone claiming on the phone to be a government official. The Internal Revenue Service, for example, will never call with a demand that you pay back taxes.
“It’s too much,” an irate Moore told me. “Someone needs to do something.”
State and federal authorities are trying their best. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we have to protect ourselves.
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