By Billy Ruhling, III
The federal stimulus package enacted in response to COVID-19 has gotten a lot of publicity in recent days. It offers a potential lifeline for businesses and families alike in this very troubling time. Unfortunately, no good deed goes unpunished. Along with the stimulus has come a round of scams, bogus offers, and phony charity requests.
As Attorney General Mark Herring recently explained:
“The sad truth is that we continue to see bad actors in Virginia and across the country taking advantage of the fear and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and trying to scam money from people.”
As a result, the Virginia Attorney General’s Office has encouraged citizens to remain vigilant regarding offers that seem “too good to be true.”
A few of the scams recently seen in connection with the current COVID-19 crisis are:
Cyber Scams – Emails purportedly sent on behalf of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO), and other healthcare organizations. Take extra care when opening attachments, clicking links, or responding to unknown sources as these can all be used to exploit individuals by directing traffic to sites where they can provide misinformation or attempt to gain your personal information or finances.
Telephone and Text Message Scams – Robocalls are commonly used by scams. If you get such a call (typically offering COVID-19 treatments and cures or work-from-home schemes) – Hang Up! Similarly, if you get text messages from unknown sources with hyperlinks in them, do not click on these links. They can be used to install malware or otherwise expose you to risk of identity theft and financial exploitation.
Counterfeit Product Offers and Price Gouging – There are currently no known vaccines, pills, medications, or other prescription or over-the-counter products proven to treat or cure the Coronavirus. The same applies to “home test kits” for COVID-19 – the FDA has not approved any such kit. You should ignore offers to purchase any of these products.
We have all seen how much demand exists for common household products (household disinfectants, hand sanitizers, toilet paper, etc.). Before purchasing any of these products, particularly online, make sure you research the seller – only complete your purchase if everything checks out.
If you believe someone is price gouging in your area, contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Section.
Phony Charities & Donation Requests – While the better part of humanity can often be seen during times of crisis, they also breed opportunists looking to take advantage of your kindness. Be cautious when approached to make donations to causes with which you are not personally familiar – particularly through crowdfunding sites. Only give to charities and fundraisers you can confirm are reliable and legitimate. You can quickly and easily verify a charity’s registration with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Office of Charitable and Regulatory Programs (OCRP) at (804) 786-1343, or by searching OCRP’s Charitable organization database online.
Following are a few basic tips to keep in mind:
- The Offer Seems Too Good to be True—If it seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is. Examples include money left to you from an unknown relative, being awarded a loan or grant for which you did not apply, winning a lottery you did not enter and being selected to receive a share in funds in return for using your bank account.
- Requests for Fees or Payment in Advance—Scammers will want advance payments or fees to clear the funds or complete their offer. It might not be clear what the fees are for, but the scammer will tell you they have to be paid or the money can’t be released. They might suggest they are only trying to help you out and the fees are a small sum compared to what you will be receiving. Never pay fees or taxes in advance.
- Pressure—Scammers will often put pressure on their victims and urge them to pay immediately or lose the opportunity, or may even threaten them with legal consequences or disconnected utilities unless a payment is sent right away. A genuine business or government entity will not pressure you to act immediately.
- Know who you are dealing with—Technology has made it easy for scammers to disguise or spoof their telephone number or create a website that looks very legitimate. Do an online search for the company name and website and look for consumer reviews. If you cannot find a seller’s physical address (not a P.O. Box) and phone number it should be a red flag. It is best to do business with websites you know and trust. If you buy items through an online auction, consider using a payment option that provides protection, like a credit card.
- They Want Private Information—Many scams involve getting hold of your bank account details. Scams involving identity theft also seek personal information. A common scenario is an email supposedly from a bank asking you to click on a link to confirm your bank details and password. Banks generally don’t do this, but if you think the email has really come from your bank, pick up the phone and confirm with them. Never click on links or attachments in emails from people you don’t know or you risk your computer becoming infected by viruses, trojans, or other malware.
- Untraceable Payment Method—Scammers prefer payment methods that are untraceable, such as wiring money through Western Union or other services. Be very suspicious of demands for wire transfers or cash payments. Never wire money to someone you do not know.
- Grammatical Errors or Poor Production Values—Scammers may be clever, but they are not always careful and English may not be their first language. Their grammatical errors can give them away. If the correspondence you receive is full of errors, low-resolution images, or unsophisticated formatting, be very suspicious.
- Suspicious Email Domains and Web Addresses—Look carefully at email addresses and domain names. Businesses rarely use free email services like Hotmail, AOL, Yahoo, or Gmail. Even if the business seems legitimate, do some research to make sure they have readily available contact information and have not scammed others.
- Suspicious or No Addresses—Scammers do not want their victims to know where they live. If there is no physical address and your contacts won’t give you one, it’s a sure bet you’re being scammed. If there is a physical address, check it out using the Internet or Google Earth and see if it’s a real address.
- Request for Access to Your Computer—A common scam is a phone call from someone claiming to be a technician who has detected problems with your computer and would like to fix them for you free. Never give anyone remote access to your computer.
If you think you may be a victim of a scam, contact the attorneys at DiMuroGinsberg at 703-684-4333 or you can reach out directly to the Consumer Protection Section: