Many Alaskans are probably feeling especially vulnerable right now. Maybe they lost their job and are waiting for that federal check to pay some bills or put food on the table. Or maybe they are hunkered down in their home, hoping that they don’t get sick and contract COVID-19.
Meanwhile, there are unscrupulous people online or working the phones to take advantage of the situation.
But there are ways to recognize and protect yourself from scams and frauds that are now underway.
“This influenza that is now circling the globe, you’re saying that Silver Solution would be effective?” asked television evangelist Jim Bakker on his show in February.
“Well, let’s say it hasn’t been tested on this strain of coronavirus,” answered guest Sherrill Sellman.
She was hawking a drinkable liquid with silver particles, called a colloid, to prevent or cure anything from the common flu to SARS and HIV. Even though there’s been no credible medical research to back up such claims, it was being marketed as a potential cure for coronavirus.
“Able to eliminate it within 12 hours,” asserted Sellman. “Totally eliminated it. Kills it. Deactivates it.”
That’s just one example of the coronavirus scams and frauds featuring bogus home testing kits, nonexistent vaccines and dubious cure-all elixirs.
“If something seems too good to be true, it probably is,” said Bryan Schroder, U.S. attorney for Alaska and the top federal prosecutor in the state.
“If you’re being offered a cure when we know that there’s not any treatments out there that have been approved yet, or you’re being offered a test when we know those are being controlled by hospitals and medical professionals, chances are that’s some kind of scam,” Schroder said.
John Haley, an assistant attorney general working in the state’s Consumer Protection Unit, said scammers get leverage by capitalizing on people’s fear and anxiety. But this time, with the current pandemic, that fear is already universally built-in.
“Because when people are afraid, they will often make rash decisions kind of quickly without thinking things through, because of that heightened anxiety, that quickened heartbeat,” Haley said. “People will make mistakes and their guard may go up, but not in the right direction.”
Schroder said other frauds include masks and other personal protective equipment apparently being sold at sky-high prices or by companies that suddenly emerge out of thin air. He said scammers may also pose as charities, cold-calling potential victims with bogus pitches to get their credit card information.
Sarana Schell, communications director with AARP Alaska, said the biggest scam right now appears related to small business loans, unemployment payments and stimulus funds. They’re likely phishing attempts.
“Be careful of anybody calling, emailing or texting saying that they need to verify your bank account or personal information in order to deposit or speed up, say, your stimulus check or your Trump dollars,” Schell said.
Schell said anyone who had their tax refunds directly deposited recently doesn’t need to submit their bank account number.
“Red flag that you can look for is the language,” Schell said. “The term that government officials are going to use is an ‘economic impact payment.’ Be wary of bogus checks that may arrive in your mailbox.”
Schroder said an effective tool is using your common sense.
“Somebody’s asking for something, and there’s that queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach — that ‘hey, maybe I shouldn’t do this’ — (then) don’t do it. Take a step back,” said Schroder.
“If you’re still concerned about hitting that button on your computer, stop and don’t do it, and get some help,” he said.
One piece of advice is to hang up the phone. Don’t give out your personal information or credit card number. And the link in that email or text message could lead to the theft of your personal information, or it could load malware on your computer or cellphone.
AARP has its Fraud Watch Network hotline, in which volunteers can help you figure out if something was legit or bogus. If it is a scam, then Schell said they’ll pass on the info to federal authorities.
Both the state and federal government also have consumer protection or fraud hotlines to take complaints.
“We’re always seeking good, detailed information about potential fraudsters, scams, deceptive advertising — price-gouging now, as well,” Haley said.
Like other federal prosecutors around the country, Schroder said they have a dedicated COVID consumer fraud coordinator in their Anchorage office. So they can track down and prosecute a scammer operating out of another state.
“Right from the top, (U.S.) Attorney General (William) Barr told us, ‘I want you to make this a priority to stop this as you see it happen,’” Schroder said.
Haley said the state’s Consumer Protection Unit can’t file criminal charges. But they can take civil action to shut down fraudsters and scammers in Alaska and impose hefty fines.
That’s pretty much what happened with Jim Bakker, who helped market the colloidal silver on his TV show in February. New York state’s attorney general sent Bakker a cease-and-desist letter, and Missouri has sued to prevent him from trying again to sell the stuff later.