The pandemic has produced more than just a horrific virus that upended life around the world. It has also brought forth—as any crisis sadly does—a flurry of scammers, phishers, and other dishonest types who spot vulnerable people and take advantage of them.
The Federal Trade Commission reported in October of 2020 that COVID-19-related scams cost Americans some $117 million during the first 6 months of 2020, compared to the $134 million they lost for the entire previous year. Google, meanwhile, blocks more than 100 million phishing emails daily, of which about 18 million are COVID-19-related.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission issued warning letters to hundreds of companies that were accused of selling fraudulent coronavirus products—including purported vaccines, stimulus checks, and unapproved drugs claiming to cure, treat, or prevent COVID-19. “There is already a high level of anxiety over the potential spread of coronavirus,” FTC Chairman Joe Simons said in a statement at the time. “What we don’t need in this situation are companies preying on consumers by promoting products with fraudulent prevention and treatment claims.”
Simons has said he’s prepared to take enforcement actions against such outfits, and some fines have been issued. In June of 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed a $225 million fine for Texas-based health insurance telemarketers who were allegedly making 1 billion spoofed robocalls, claiming to sell short-term health insurance plans. This action is still being considered by lawmakers.
“Fraudsters and dishonest people thrive in environments like COVID-19 because people are desperate for solutions to their problems,” says Steven Levin, founding partner of Levin & Perconti, a Chicago-based malpractice and nursing-home personal-injury firm.
One of the most common current schemes, unsurprisingly, concerns vaccines. Scammers request money upfront for early access to the shots—something legitimate health departments and vaccination sites will not be doing. (Nor will they ask for payment to secure a favorable spot on a waiting list.) Some fraudsters will ask for money in exchange for shipping a vaccine directly to a household, though inoculation is available only at authorized vaccination sites, which you can find through your state health department or the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Many scammers urge their marks to act immediately; request financial, medical, or personal information; and ask you to click a link or open an attachment. Their correspondence often has spelling mistakes. Those attempting to sell questionable products that claim to treat or cure COVID-19 almost always ask for money upfront—usually via an unexpected call, text, or email.
The elderly are the most vulnerable here, Levin says, as they’re more susceptible to the lure of unscrupulous people who take advantage of potential neurological problems, difficulty notifying authorities, or even sheer loneliness—factors that make seniors enticing victims. They have been socially isolated at home and in nursing homes, where visitors have been limited or nonexistent.
“It’s a perfect storm of COVID people with medical situations not able to protect themselves and deprived of their friends, families, and advocates,” Levin says. “They become sitting ducks.”
Along with nursing homes that may blame any staffing problems or subpar care on the virus, fraudulent companies are doubly victimizing the elderly, promising them vaccines, along with COVID-19 relief products that appear to be the solution to their most pressing problems. “Criminals thrive in times like these, and we want to ensure that those receiving payments are aware of these scams,” says Special Agent Tara Sullivan of the Internal Revenue Service’s Las Vegas Field Office, referring to the elderly and anyone else receiving checks they believe to be stimulus checks - but may be fraudulent. “IRS Criminal Investigation will seek to prosecute those taking advantage of our community during these times of distress.”
Catching someone committing fraud and helping consumers find justice is a difficult task, of course. It can be tricky for victims to obtain compensation if they weren’t actually harmed, as it’s hard to file a lawsuit in such situations. Levin likens it to being rear-ended but not hurt by a driver exceeding the speed limit: There isn’t always a tangible remedy.
Still, fraud and scam victims are protected by a variety of organizations that might be able to help if you’ve lost money. Levin suggests reporting anything suspicious to regulatory bodies such as your state’s attorney general, consumer hotlines, the Better Business Bureau, and any regulatory body that has authority over the group in question. For example, if you think you’ve been a victim of disaster fraud, criminal conduct relating to COVID-19, you should report this to the U.S. Department of Justice. The principal federal agency charged with collecting scam reports, though, is the FTC, which might be able to help get money returned or remove fraudulent charges. If consumers used a credit card in the scam, the FTC advises them to report it to their bank, card issuer, and the major reporting agencies such as the FTC.
You can consult with a lawyer, of course, to determine whether you have a case. “Often, that’s a no-cost conversation that can offer peace of mind,” Levin says. “Attorneys can also direct consumers to other available remedies.”
Danielle Braff is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose bylines have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and more. She lives with her husband, two children, two cats and a dog.