In the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, public health officials have made it clear: There is no pill, vaccine or supplement that can cure or prevent the virus.
But that hasn’t stopped scam artists from trying to take advantage of people’s fears.
In Peru, a curandero claiming to have “a pact with the devil” promised to treat coronavirus among other ailments. On Craigslist, a now-removed post claimed: “I think I found how to prevent coronavirus ... from my grandmother’s herbal remedy recipe card.” And a televangelist recently promoted his “Silver Solution” on his show, suggesting the concoction would boost the immune system and kill the virus within 12 hours.
These are just a few examples of people who are trying to capitalize on the coronavirus panic, and there are countless others — from price gougers selling hand sanitizer for hundreds of dollars to fake at-home coronavirus test kits coming from out of the country.
Officials are aggressively pursuing scammers, threatening legal action if they continue.
The FDA has issued warning letters to seven entities that it says have made false claims about coronavirus cures or treatments, including “The Jim Bakker Show,” which is already facing legal action from federal and state agencies.
Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer and L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey have formed a coronavirus task force dedicated to scouring the internet and brick-and-mortar stores for fraudsters and price gougers.
Feuer’s office is already investigating two Los Angeles companies: CEN Group LLC., which on its website, SafeBabyHealthyChild, promoted vitamin C as a coronavirus treatment, and the website modernbeyond.com, which was selling face masks.
So far, CEN Group LLC. has complied with requests to take down the false claims, Feuer said.
On March 12, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials at Los Angeles International Airport seized six plastic bags containing fake coronavirus home testing kits that were shipped from the United Kingdom. Dozens of vials inside the plastic bags were labeled “Corona Virus 2019nconvd (COVID-19)” and “Virus1 Test Kit,” according to CBP.
Feuer said his coronavirus task force is on the lookout for other fake at-home test kits advertised online.
The city attorney wouldn’t talk about the details of each investigation, or how many cases his office was following, but he promised: “Scam artists who are targeting Angelenos are going to confront our office and we’re going to take them on.”
The crackdown comes as normal day-to-day activities are grinding to a halt across the country. In the Bay Area, seven counties are under a shelter-in-place order, and in Los Angeles County, bars and restaurants have closed or prohibited dining in. Nearly 900 people in California have tested positive for the virus and 17 have died so far. Experts say in the next year, up to 70% of the population will become infected.
Officials say that not only do the false claims for cures and tests fuel the national anxiety, they could prevent sick people from seeking the help they need, or discourage healthy people from adopting best practices such as social distancing and washing their hands.
Scam artists who emerge during a health crisis are nothing new. Any time a new panic arises, they seize the opportunity to prey upon a frightened population, as was the case with SARS in 2003 and the H1N1 virus in 2009, another outbreak during which we heard about colloidal silver. Some scammers touted it as a cure-all, insisting that it could get rid of cancer, AIDS, tuberculosis, diabetes and numerous other diseases. Others pushed counterfeit Tamiflu pills as a cure.
“When people are at this state, they’re willing to try almost anything,” said April Denise Thames, an associate professor of psychology and a clinical neuropsychologist at USC.
On a recent show, Jim Bakker— a televangelist who spent almost five years in jail in the 1990s for defrauding followers into buying memberships and retreats that supported his extravagant lifestyle — said of his colloidal silver product: “We’ve tested, it works on just about everything.”
Holding the black “Silver Solution” bottle, he asked a guest: “This influenza that is now circulating the globe, you’re saying that silver solution would be effective?”
It hasn’t been tested on this strain of the virus, but “it’s been tested on other strains of the coronavirus and has been able to eliminate it within 12 hours” the woman responded. “Totally eliminate it. Kills it. Deactivates it.”
Bakker is now facing a lawsuit in the state of Missouri, and New York officials have ordered him to stop promoting his colloidal silver products, which have since been removed from his website. Feuer has also taken aim at Bakker, saying his office is collaborating with federal and state officials who have already targeted the televangelist.
Representatives of “The Jim Bakker Show,” which airs in Los Angeles on satellite and cable TV, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In Boise, Idaho, a business called Herbal Amy, which was selling products developed by herbalist Stephen Buhner, received a warning letter from the FDA.
According to the letter, the Herbal Amy site claimed that Buhner “analyzed how coronaviruses infect tissues…and herbs that are useful to interrupt that process” and that “Stephen Buhner has used this with other corona virus infections, including SARS, it works well.”
By Tuesday, the website had taken down those statements and added a note warning that the products were made in a kitchen and were not FDA-approved. The website also noted that herbs high in demand, such as Chinese skullcap root, were sold out.
“As people are concerned about their immune systems, these and many other immune herbs are being sold out across the nation,” the site read, before directing people looking for such products to google Stephen Buhner’s herbs.
In response, Buhner said though he’s not happy about Herbal Amy’s claims and that the company used his name without permission, he believes in the effectiveness of herbal medicines in some circumstances. He said he is not affiliated with Herbal Amy or any other company selling his herbs.
“Despite the existence of a few antiviral pharmaceuticals the only real treatments that Western medicine has developed for viral infections are vaccines,” Buhner said in the statement. “Unfortunately, vaccines for new organisms generally take a year or so to develop, hence my desire to create an herbal protocol that people could begin using to boost their immunity to, and disrupt the tissue infections of, this specific coronavirus strain.”
Facebook, Amazon and other major companies have banned and removed advertisements and posts about bogus cures. In addition, Amazon has blocked or removed millions of products suspected of making misleading claims about the coronavirus. Facebook has done the same, and has instigated a new policy about certain medical supplies:
“We are temporarily banning advertisements and commerce listings that sell medical face masks,” a Facebook spokesperson said. “Our teams are monitoring the COVID-19 situation closely and will make necessary updates to our policies if we see people trying to exploit this public health emergency for their own benefit.”
When panic and fear are pervasive, people are more likely to fall victim to these types of claims, because their decision-making skills could be impaired by the heightened anxiety, USC’s Thames said.
“In times of uncertainty and distress, there’s a tendency for people to be reactive,” Thames said. “We’re all vulnerable to it.”
Officials say that seniors, whose decision-making skills may be diminished by age, are more frequently targeted by scammers looking to make money or steal people’s identities. The health risks and panic caused by the coronavirus make them even more vulnerable to scammers claiming to have a quick fix for the virus.
On the other hand, younger adults and teenagers may be susceptible to scams because, Thames said, they will often think with emotions, “so if something looks good or exciting, the thought often is, ‘Why not?’ ”
Others who have a distrust of the public health system or don’t have the means to obtain the care they need sometimes search for alternative forms of healing, putting them at risk as well.
“I’ve had several patients come to me and say, ‘I heard this works’ about some herb they heard about, and they would prefer to try that than any type of Westernized medicine,” Thames said. “It’s a complete scam, because it’s not backed by scientific evidence of any kind.”
The scams also show up via emails and robocalls.
One robocall claiming to be associated with the World Health Organization said: “The WHO is informing you that you applied for a coronavirus vaccine and today is the last day to address it. If you have any questions, press 9 for help.” The message is then repeated in Chinese.
Emails might disguise themselves as helpful resources from official sources, such as the WHO or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When users click through, they are actually allowing access to personal data like passwords or credit card details or downloading malicious software, said Nikolas Behar, a cybersecurity expert.
Behar said these types of online scanners are always pervasive and looking for new targets. The coronavirus is simply “the flavor of the month.”
Officials and experts say protecting the public will be, to a great extent, a matter of how well health officials can disseminate educational information to those at risk.
Thames said the public should be educated about the rigorous scientific process that cures and vaccinations need to go through before becoming available to the public.
“There needs to be a wide public information campaign by our national health experts about some basic issues ... where [they] make clear there’s no home testing, there are no cures for coronavirus, and there is no medication that one can take.”
“The more pervasive the campaign would be, in many languages, the better.”