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Federal and state officials press consumers to report COVID-19 fraud

More vigilance is required in this situation, but that’s the only way to keep from taking the bait

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All the bad that comes with a crisis situation like the coronavirus pandemic has officially crossed the line in U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s mind. He and Georgia Attorney General Christopher M. Carr are urging the American public to keep an eye out for suspected fraud schemes related to COVID-19.

Throwing as wide a net as possible, Barr has instructed all U.S. attorneys general to move the investigation and prosecution of coronavirus-related fraud schemes to the front burner. Following suit, various levels of the Department of Justice put in place Coronavirus Fraud Coordinators to serve as the legal counsel and manage the prosecution of coronavirus-related crimes, as well as take the lead in informing the public about what to be on the lookout for.

What to look for

Barr’s team laid out examples of the types of schemes the public should watch for and report to his office. These include:

  • Individuals and businesses selling fake cures for COVID-19 online and engaging in other forms of fraud;

  • Phishing emails from any organization posing as the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention;

  • Any website or app that says it has coronavirus-related information it can use to gain and lock access to your devices and hold that information hostage until that company is paid a ransom;

  • Any source asking for donations for unauthorized or fictitious charity; and

  • Medical providers (physicians, group health networks, etc.) that acquire patient information purportedly for COVID-19 testing, but then turn around and use that information to fraudulently bill for other tests and procedures.

Georgia’s Attorney General Chris Carr added his two cents to Barr’s list, urging consumers in his state to:

  • Hang up on robocalls and don’t play into a scammer’s hands by entering any numbers on the phone’s keypad. “Scammers are using illegal robocalls to pitch everything from scam Coronavirus treatments to work-at-home schemes,” Carr said. “The recording might say that pressing a number will let you speak to a live operator or remove you from their call list, but it might lead to more robocalls, instead.”

  • Don’t respond to texts and emails about checks from the government. While the government is working on sending money to citizens as part of a relief package, the particulars are still being worked out. Until that is made official, anyone who tells you they can get you the money now is a bonafide scammer.

Already on the case

Barr’s team wasted no time bringing schemers to justice. Right out of the gate on Saturday, the Department of Justice filed a temporary restraining order against operators of a fraudulent website -- “coronavirusmedicalkit.com” -- for “engaging in a wire fraud scheme seeking to profit from the confusion and widespread fear surrounding COVID-19.”

The site’s apparent charade was to offer consumers access to the WHO vaccine kits in exchange for a shipping charge of $4.95, which, of course, consumers would pay by entering their credit card information to finalize the transaction. 

Of course, there are no legitimate COVID-19 vaccines, yet. On top of that, the WHO is not distributing any related vaccine. Nor, as ConsumerAffairs found out, is the WHO offering an e-book named My-Health, which supposedly contains information to protect children and business from the virus.

“The Department of Justice will not tolerate criminal exploitation of this national emergency for personal gain,” said Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division. “We will use every resource at the government’s disposal to act quickly to shut down these most despicable of scammers, whether they are defrauding consumers, committing identity theft, or delivering malware.”

Everyone’s a target -- even you

In this situation, no one’s safe. And because so many people are homebound, the internet of things is brimming with potential victims. 

“As a result of COVID-19, many workers are teleworking for the very first time and home with children who may also be doing online education,” Jodi Daniels, CEO & Privacy Consultant of Red Clover Advisors told ConsumerAffairs. 

“People also want to help the greater cause and want COVID-19 related information. This is a target rich environment for cyber criminals.” 

Daniels offered a few tips consumers can add to their list of warnings:

  • Do not click unrecognized links – hover first on the link to review and see if it’s the full company url.

  • Look out for poor spelling or grammar.

  • Don’t click on attachments.

If anything -- ANYTHING -- makes your hogwash detector go off even the slightest bit, Barr says consumers should call the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) hotline (1-866-720-5721) or e-mail the NCDF at disaster@leo.gov.

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