Protect Yourself from COVID-19 Scams

Q: What do Iowans need to know about protecting themselves from the coronavirus?

A: As the global outbreak reaches across the United States, the novel coronavirus is impacting public health and the economy as efforts to mitigate the spread of infection disrupt daily life, work, school, travel and consumer spending. Congress passed an emergency $8.3 billion spending bill to accelerate development of coronavirus vaccines, treatments and tests, purchase medical supplies and provide federal grants for prevention and preparedness efforts implemented by state and local health departments. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidelines regarding COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by this new coronavirus. According to the CDC, older adults and people who have underlying, chronic health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, are at higher risk for more serious complications. First and foremost, all Americans should take simple, preventative measures to protect themselves and their loved ones, including frequent handwashing, avoid touching one’s face and shaking hands, use precautions when touching high-contact areas like door pulls, and regularly disinfect surfaces. Check the White House Coronavirus Task Force guidelines on specific steps that will help curb the spread of coronavirus and other respiratory infections in your home, workplace and community.

 

Q: What should Iowans know about scams related to the coronavirus?

A: Unfortunately, the coronavirus outbreak also has created an opportunity for bad actors to take advantage of the situation. A number of deceptive tactics underway pose harm to consumers’ privacy, pocketbooks and public health. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently warned several companies against “deceptive” claims about products marketed as coronavirus treatments that put patient health at risk and violate federal law. The federal agencies advise consumers that currently there are no approved vaccines, drugs, pills, potions, lotions, lozenges or any over-the-counter products or prescribed medications to treat or prevent COVID-19. During natural disasters and disease outbreaks, fraudsters come out of the woodwork to prey on public fears. Just as sure as the sun rises in the east, bad actors pounce at the opportunity to rip off consumers and pitch false claims for products and unproven cures. It happened during the Zika, Ebola, and SARS outbreaks, and it’s happening again with COVID-19. If a miracle cure or treatment sounds too good to be true, follow your gut instincts. Online shopping platforms are ripe for predatory pricing and counterfeit products, such as safety masks and latex-free gloves that unlawfully promise to prevent coronavirus. From my leadership positions on the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, I’ve worked to protect consumers from counterfeiters who use e-commerce to sell fake goods and products. Counterfeit products sold online or on the shelf using deceptive labels claiming to prevent, treat or cure coronavirus effectively pick people’s pockets and pose harm to consumer safety. Use caution to protect your health and wallets.

Businesses who unlawfully profit by exploiting public fear during this public health emergency are being put on notice. In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds declared a state of disaster emergency that triggers price-gouging rules. That means businesses that raise prices unreasonably above a normal range of commerce prior to the emergency may face liability for price gouging at the discretion of the Iowa Attorney General. Price gouging applies during the declared emergency and for up to six months following. To file a complaint about price gouging, contact the Consumer Protection Division at www.iowaattorneygeneral.gov, or call (515) 281-5926, or email consumer@ag.iowa.gov.

Further, the FTC advises consumers to be vigilant when making charitable contributions, including crowdfunding sites. Avoid making cash donations, including gift cards or wiring money. Iowans can donate wisely and avoid charity scams by checking FTC guidelines here.  

Be wary and weed out misinformation. Notably, emails are ripe for abuse. Cyber thieves deploy tactics to steal personal data and sensitive information using phishing emails. They trick recipients to click a link or open an attachment that may result in downloading malware on your computer. Fraudsters may claim to be from the CDC or offer local information about the disease concerning your community or school district. As a general rule, do not click on unsolicited links.

Be alert to investment scams. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has warned Americans about substantial potential for fraud with online promotions and claims that products or services of publicly-traded companies can prevent, stop or cure the coronavirus. As with any investment, the SEC advises Americans to do their homework and keep in mind fraudsters who look to exploit the latest crisis for profit. Scam artists often target the elderly for their schemes. As then-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I led passage of a new federal law signed by President Trump in 2017 to enhance protections and prosecution for these crimes. Among other measures, it established an elder justice coordinator in the FTC and U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). In March, the DOJ launched a National Elder Fraud hotline to provide assistance and services to older citizens who may be victims of financial fraud. When appropriate, case managers will report suspected fraud to the FBI on the caller’s behalf. To report financial fraud involving an older citizen, call the DOJ’s elder fraud hotline at (833) 372-8311.

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