Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles Monday announced a partnership with the AARP to help residents avoid coronavirus-related fraud schemes such as online sales of counterfeit or fake COVID-19 testing kits, bogus cures, “immunity” pills and ineffective protective equipment.
Phishing emails from entities posing as the World Health Organization or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, malicious websites and apps that appear to share virus-related information to gain and lock access to a victim’s devices until payment is received, and criminals seeking donations for illegitimate or non-existent charities have also been reported during the past several months, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“In times of crisis, scammers prey on fear,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Johns, chief of the environmental and community safety crimes section and coronavirus fraud coordinator for the office.
“People are afraid for their loved ones,” he said, adding that citizens are also afraid for their savings, “which is where investment fraud comes in.”
As of Thursday, the Federal Trade Commission reported it had received 20,334 consumer complaints related to the outbreak, including more than 11,000 fraud complaints. Victims have reported losses of $15.6 million, with a median loss of $559, the agency said.
The FTC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have sent more than 40 warnings to companies selling unapproved products they claim can cure or prevent COVID-19 and shut down a website that was promoting a nonexistent vaccine.
Teas, essential oils, cannabinol, colloidol silver and intravenous vitamin-C therapies are among supposed antiviral treatments hawked in clinics and on websites, social media and television shows as defenses against the pandemic, according to AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.
AARP and the U.S. Attorney’s Office teamed Monday to hold a telephonic town hall, describing some of the scams and how to avoid them.
“There is the global coronavirus pandemic, closely followed by a global fraud pandemic,” Johns said.
Schemes that appear to be increasing include offers of in-demand supplies such as surgical masks, test kits and household cleaners, often in robocalls, texts or social media ads. The FTC has issued warnings to companies suspected of involvement with the robocalls, and the Federal Communications Commission set up a dedicated website with information on COVID-19 phone scams, federal officials said.
Johns said that while his office has received a large number of tips and leads, the partnership with AARP is crucial in reaching a segment of the population which may not be savvy with new technology.
“Older people are vulnerable simply because they may not be familiar with online safety,” the prosecutor said. “Fraudsters are targeting people that just don’t have the knowledge to recognize when an email doesn’t look right — and to just delete it before opening it. They don’t know when a return email address from a bank, for example, is wrong.”
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