Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer warned residents Thursday about price gouging during the coronavirus pandemic, but also said to watch for child or elder abuse as reports of such crimes have dipped dramatically during mandated social distancing.
In Orange County, cases of elder abuse have fallen by 68% and child abuse reports have plummeted 45%, Spitzer said at a news conference Thursday afternoon.
Spitzer said it is likely owed to “mandatory reporters” of those types of abuse in banks and schools being sidelined by COVID-19 as most people either work from home or have been furloughed during the emergency.
“With banks and schools closed, the people we love the most are the most susceptible to abuse,” Spitzer said.
Bank clerks most often report elder abuse when someone manipulates an elderly person to drain their savings accounts, Spitzer noted.
“If you’re in a store and see a kid with bruises, or a kid not acting normally, I want you to report it,” Spitzer said. “If you see an elderly person taking a walk and sense that something is amiss… I want you to ask them if everything’s OK.”
Spitzer encouraged residents to report suspicions to the county’s Social Services Agency “and have them look into it.”
The top prosecutor also warned against online scams and mail theft as crooks look to grab relief checks from the federal government during the pandemic.
“If you get an email from a charity asking for money, I do not want you to open up any attachments,” Spitzer said. “Most of those people are not legitimate and they’re phishing scams. That means they’re looking for ways to take over your computer.”
It is best to just directly call a charity and offer a donation, Spitzer said.
Also, Spitzer said anyone calling to claim they are from the Internal Revenue Service is illegitimate.
“The Internal Revenue Service will never call you and never ask for your private information,” Spitzer said. “Just hang up the phone.”
As for price gouging, Spitzer said that issue is complicated. The law prohibits a merchant from charging more than 10% higher than market value during an emergency, but the law has not been updated for decades, so there was a “loophole” that did not cover new merchants who pop up during an emergency, Spitzer said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order covering that loophole for the time being by preventing markups over 50% by new merchants who pop up after a state of emergency was declared, Spitzer said. He also said he helped state Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Anaheim, in crafting a bill he intends to introduce once lawmakers return to session.
Some consumers think businesses are price gouging when that is not the case, Spitzer said.
“Our office received a call of a convenience store selling a roll (of toilet paper) … for $2.99,” Spitzer said.
“But how many times have you bought toiler paper at your convenience store?” Spitzer said, adding the price is often much higher than a department store where a customer can buy in bulk.
“Toilet paper has always been $2.99 at the convenience store,” Spitzer said.
Spitzer urged consumers to call a new hotline at 714-834-3482 if they sense price gouging.
Umberg Tuesday previewed the bill with support from Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer and San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan.
The law has not been updated since 1992, an aide to Umberg said.
Spitzer said he has also received calls about various COVID-19 tests. He said he can investigate a test vendor if they misrepresent what the test can do. Also, if a test dispenser falsely claims their test has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
“If it’s not our jurisdiction, we will refer it to the federal government,” Spitzer said of any test scams.
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