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A ‘perfect storm’ of coronavirus scams emerges amid pandemic

Ben Werschkul
DC Producer

It’s often said that scammers follow the headlines. And bad actors have indeed found a range of ways to use the coronavirus crisis for illegal gain.

What concerns government officials and watchdogs most is that these scammers – who by and large have been operating for years – could be finding new potential targets among Americans who are isolated and financially insecure amid the pandemic.

“It's the perfect storm of the things that are most likely to contribute to somebody falling for a scam,” says Katherine Hutt, national spokesperson for the the Better Business Bureau. Her group has been closely tracking the issue and has a page up with the top frauds.

“We've seen a dramatic uptick in the number of coronavirus-related complaints; we’ve seen an uptick in the amount of harm that people are reporting,” added Noah J. Phillips, a commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission during a recent appearance on Yahoo Finance.

Joe Simon is the Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Where they are coming from

The fact that these scammers are professionals – and often based overseas – limits the federal government’s ability to combat the scourge.

The Better Business Bureau has highlighted a range of scams, everything from fake cures to efforts to charge fraudulent “fees” around people’s coronavirus stimulus checks. Fraudulent websites have flourished offering face masks and other PPE. 

“Early on, the complaints were largely about the travel industry, airlines and hotels and cruises and things like that,” says Hutt. “But then over time that expanded.”

A recent report found that one in 10 American adults are victims of fraud in any given year. The report, which was released in 2019, found that people experiencing financial strain, social isolation, or simply spending a lot of time online shopping were most likely to be victims.

“We have all three of these” now, says Hutt.

The government response, so far

The Federal Trade Commission has been the most visible government agency responding to the scams. They have focused on public awareness with advice pages, a complaint assistant, and even a scam bingo card.

Phillips cited a recent FTC action against a business in Rhode Island, called Ponte Investments. The firm is now the subject of a complaint by the FTC. The commission is charging the company for allegedly falsely claiming to be an SBA-authorized lender.

Noah Phillips testifies during a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee during his confirmation hearing in 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Phillips was nominated to his current position by President Trump and then confirmed by the Senate in 2018. He says the FTC is partnering with agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Communications Commission to do what they can to crack down on scammers.

The Justice Department has more sweeping legal authority than other parts of the government. In April, it announced it had “disrupted hundreds of internet domains used to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to commit fraud and other crimes.”

The problem is that most of the scammers remain out of the government’s reach.

Many originate in places like West Africa or India. “Part of the problem with these fairly sophisticated scam operations is that their home country looks the other way,” says Hutt. “That's why they're there.”

The Better Business Bureau and other consumer groups are currently working to compile information on exactly how many more scams are being perpetrated, and how many are succeeding.

For now, Phillips encourages consumers to remain vigilant. He says people need to understand the fears they are currently experiencing “are going to be reflected in the kinds of scams that people will try to perpetrate.”

Remember that “the best information you can get is from the government directly,” he says.

Ben Werschkul is a producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.

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