Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has caused challenges in nearly every aspect of life — including how to avoid being scammed.
The office of U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis recently conducted a webinar called Consumer Protection Forum: Fighting Fraud and Scams.
“Millions of Americans have been forced to isolate,” said Bilirakis, who represents the 12th congressional district in Florida, and is the ranking member for the Consumer Protection and Commerce subcommittee.
“Unfortunately, scammers are continuing to find new ways to exploit vulnerable Americans during COVID-19. Bad actors, unfortunately, continue to exploit consumers — their fears and confusion,” said Bilirakis, whose district includes all of Pasco County and parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
Fake stimulus checks, fraudulent loans for small businesses and knock-off personal protection equipment are just a few of the scams that have arisen during this time of COVID-19.
“With people remaining locked in their homes, many have logged online for social interaction. That’s understandable. The bad guys, however, know this. And the FTC has already found that people are increasingly falling victim for scams through social media platforms.
“In just the first six months of 2020, for example, scams originating from social media tripled, resulting in $117 million in losses. With more consumers tuning in to these platforms, scammers create fake profiles, offering connection, friendship or economic relief, only to steal information and hard-earned dollars,” Bilirakis said.
Panelists from federal and state agencies shared their knowledge about how to avoid scams and legitimate places to turn to, for help.
Ronald Loecker, from the Tampa field office of the IRS, told listeners: “Education, quite simply, is the most powerful tool we have to prevent fraud and protect consumers.
“Scammers are looking to cash in. Fraudsters never stop,” he said.
He said the IRS will not send text messages asking taxpayers to provide bank account information, under the promise of receiving the Economic Impact Payment.
It also won’t call to threaten you with arrest or a lawsuit, he said.
“If you get a similar call, just hang up,” Loecker said.
“If someone contacts you via text message or email on social media, claiming to be from the IRS, it’s a scam, plain and simple,” he added.
Help is available for housing relief
Lisa Schifferle, a senior policy analyst with the Office of Older Americans, in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, offered advice regarding housing relief options.
When consumers are struggling with paying their mortgage or rent, they can turn to ConsumerFinance.gov/housing, she said.
“It’s basically a one-stop shop for anyone who needs to find accurate information about housing relief options, available during the pandemic,” Schifferle said.
She also offered this advice: “Never pay someone upfront if they say they’re going to stop your foreclosure. Paying upfront is a red flag for a mortgage relief scam. It is illegal for them to charge you upfront.”
She added, be wary: “If the company guarantees it will get your mortgage changed, or if they guarantee that you won’t lose your home. Also, if they tell you to send your payment to someone other than your mortgage company or servicer, or tell you to stop paying your mortgage.
“You can find free help from certified HUD housing counselors.”
There are sources of legitimate help, she said, but people need to seek it out.
“If you are having trouble paying your mortgage or paying your bills, you are not alone. A lot of people are having trouble right now. The important thing to know is to reach out to your lenders, loan servicers and other creditors. They can’t help you, unless you reach out to them,” she said.
She added: “When you are looking for settling your debt and working out a payment plan, be skeptical of debt settlement companies, also called debt relief companies. They charge you a fee upfront in order to renegotiate your debts. Sometimes, if you work with one of them, you may end up deeper in debt than when you started.
“We encourage you to consider working with a nonprofit credit counselor, or negotiating directly with a creditor or a debt collector yourself,” she said.
Complaints way up, at FTC
Colleen Tressler, a senior project manager with the Federal Trade Commission, explained the FTC’s role.
“The FTC works to stop unfair, deceptive or fraudulent practices in the marketplace. We conduct investigations, sue companies and people that break the law, and alert consumers and businesses about scams we’re seeing, as well as educate them about their rights,” she said.
“In 2020, the FTC took in more than 4.7 million reports. That’s up from 3.2 million in 2019.
“Total fraud losses in 2020 were $3.3 billion, up from $1.9 billion, in 2019.
“In 2020, people filed nearly 1.4 million reports about identity theft, more than double the number in 2019.”
Reports to the FTC were wide-ranging, with cyber criminals filing unemployment claims using other people’s personal information; identity theft involving federal economic relief payments; romance scams; online shopping scams; people falsely claiming to be the government, a relative in distress or a tech company, and so on.
“More people reported problems with online shopping in April and May in 2020, than in any other months on record, and more than half said they never got what they ordered,” Tressler said.
“Reports show that early in the pandemic, shady sellers began putting up websites, offering hard-to-find products, like PPE and household cleaners and disinfectants. When customers asked about their orders, scammers said the pandemic was causing shipping delays and then stopped responding, all the while, billing people for things that didn’t get delivered, wasn’t what the customer ordered, or was a cheap knock-off.
“The phone is still the top way that scammers are reaching us, both through phone calls and text messages. In fact, it was a sharp increase in the number of callers saying that scammers contacted them by text message, and not surprisingly, many of these text messages were related to the pandemic.”
Rick Kimsey, director of consumer services for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said his office received about 300,000 calls — and processed about 40,000 consumer complaints last year.
The complaints yielded more than $3 million in direct consumer refunds, he said.
“We continue to see fraud in the area of facemasks, gloves, hand sanitizers and disinfectants.
“As previously mentioned, face masks and gloves are usually products that just never arrived to consumers.
“The department assists consumers in contacting sellers and trying to finalize those purchases or refund the consumers’ money.
“We’re the consumer clearinghouse for the state of Florida. If you feel you’ve been a victim of a scam, or if you’re need of assistance, information, on any consumer-related issue, you can please contact us,” he said. The numbers to call are 1-800-435-7352 (English) and 1-800-352-9832 (Spanish).
For more information, or to watch the virtual forum, which was recorded, visit Bilirakis.house.gov.
Protecting yourself from fraudsters
Be wary of these scams:
- Phishing schemes: Schemes that use fake phone calls, texts, emails or social media in an attempt to secure personal or financial information
- Fake donation requests for individuals or groups heavily affected by COVID-19
- Sophisticated scams asking for investments in companies developing COVID-19 vaccines or treatments, while promising that the company will dramatically increase in value as a result
- Anyone promising a deal too good to be true
- Text messages asking taxpayers to provide bank account information, under the promise of receiving the Economic Impact Payment
- The IRS will never call and threaten you with arrest or a lawsuit. If you get a similar call, just hang up.
- If someone contacts you via text message or email on social media, claiming to be from the IRS, it’s a scam, plain and simple.
- Avoid responding directly to unsolicited emails, text messages and phone calls. If you don’t know who is calling, let the caller leave a voicemail, so you can decide if you want to call back.
- Seek information from trusted sources, such as the county health department or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Verify sources of solicitations.
- Pay with a credit card, if you can, especially online — credit card companies often provide extra consumer protection measures.
Avoid vaccine scams
- Check with state or local health departments, health care providers or pharmacists to learn when and how to get the covid vaccine.
- Don’t pay to sign up for the covid vaccine. Anyone who asks for a payment to put you on a list, make an appointment for you, or reserve a spot in line, is a scammer.
- You can’t pay to get a vaccine. That’s a scam. On Medicare, you don’t have to pay to get the covid vaccine. Only scammers will ask you to pay.
- Ignore sale ads for the vaccine. You can’t buy it anywhere. It’s only available at federal and state approved locations.
- Nobody legitimate will call, text or email about the vaccine and ask for your Social Security, bank account or credit card number. That’s a scam.
- Buy PPE (personal protective equipment) from a reputable seller. Lots of companies are popping up online and offering to sell these products to you. Be careful who you buy from.
For more information
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis’ office: 727-232-2921; Bilirakis.house.gov
Published March 17, 2021