Updated: May 8, 2020
The current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is affecting the victim services community in a number of different ways. Many of us are adjusting to part- or full-time remote work schedules, and developing innovative ways to assist victims while practicing social distancing. In cities like Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, there have been significant decreases in crime reports, and rates of “serious felonies” (or violent crimes) also dropped in New York City (read more here and here). However, the victim services community still expects certain types of crime to escalate. With many stay-at-home orders in effect, victims of domestic violence, interpersonal violence, and/or child abuse are more vulnerable and left with fewer methods of recourse. In addition, perpetrators of fraud and scams have a tendency to utilize current events to perpetuate fraud and target victims, and this pandemic is no exception.
Scammers often use disaster events to take advantage of victims. After natural disasters, we often see a surge in home improvement scams, with perpetrators collecting up-front payments for home repair that may have been caused by a tornado or hurricane. Usually, they either do not start, fail to finish the work, or construct inadequate repairs. They then disappear with the victim’s payment, as they typically move on to other damaged areas to further perpetuate scams. Charity scams are also common after catastrophic events, such mass shootings, where perpetrators create fake fundraisers and collect the proceeds. Regardless of the circumstances, it is wise to ensure that donations are going to credible organizations for legitimate purposes. The FTC recommends these guidelines on donating to charities, as shown in the infographic in the left column.
With surges in the prevalence of coronavirus, a number of scams are becoming more prevalent. The Department of Justice has released information on many of these scams, which are often related to treatment, testing, and supplies. Perpetrators are selling a variety of unproven treatments, such as fake medication and vaccines, as well as fabricating testing mechanisms, such as at-home tests and door-to-door testing. As of now, there is no cure, and tests are not typically being done in individuals’ homes. There are also scams proposing to sell medical equipment or in-demand supplies like hand sanitizer. With these types of scams, perpetrators will usually accept payment electronically and then will never deliver the product or service that was promised.
Many of us have also heard about price gouging, where perpetrators will sell a real product, but for prices that are significantly higher than the fair market value. Other fraudsters are contacting potential victims with false allegations of medical treatment that was given to a family or friend, and will demand payment. While you may think that such scams should be easy to identify, perpetrators use scare tactics and may impersonate medical personnel to lend themselves credibility. Fraudsters also prey on those who are most vulnerable, like older adults with capacity issues, or individuals who have recently lost a loved one.
Some perpetrators rely on tried-and-true scams, modifying them to make them relevant to coronavirus. Similar to the other types of charity scams mentioned above, perpetrators are creating fundraisers for those who are being affected by coronavirus, with no intention of distributing any money to victims. Other examples are phishing emails with links purporting to share information related to coronavirus which may download malware on the user’s computer. According to the Department of Justice, “one form of malware being spread contains an interactive online map of Coronavirus-infected areas…Once someone downloads this interactive map, the malware steals the user’s credentials, such as usernames, credit card numbers, passwords, and other sensitive information usually stored in internet browsers.” The volatility in the stock market may make some victims more susceptible to frauds like investment scams, where perpetrators promise unrealistic returns on investments in companies with claims that they can cure coronavirus. Lastly, some fraudsters contact victims with promises of additional stimulus checks in exchange for personal identifying information.
This website and infographic above from the Los Angeles County of
Consumer and Business Affairs contains helpful information.
Advocates should first familiarize themselves with these scams, and then share this information with clients to promote prevention efforts and awareness. In addition, if someone has fallen victim, they should report to the COVID-19 Pandemic Fraud Hotline at 202-252-7022 and USADC.COVID19@usdoj.gov. As the virus continues to spread, perpetrators will continue to use current events, natural disasters, and other new ways to target victims. Just as you are taking steps to keep yourselves and your loved ones healthy during this pandemic, it is also equally important to keep your finances and personal identifying information safe as well!