AG Shapiro and U.S. Attorney Brady Joint Op-Ed on Protecting Consumers with New COVID19 Fraud Task Force
(STL.News) – During these difficult times, the last thing the people of Pennsylvania need are individuals, retailers, or wholesalers taking advantage of them. Gouging prices of household essentials or scamming people out of money for “at home” coronavirus kits that don’t exist isn’t just a disgusting practice – it is illegal.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we created a first-in-the-nation operation – the Western Pennsylvania COVID-19 Fraud Task Force – to protect western Pennsylvanians from fraud related to this crisis. We are bringing together federal and state resources to stop fraudsters from profiting off misinformation in this uncertain time.
The breadth of fraud and scams we are seeing requires a similarly broad law enforcement coalition to respond. We have assembled a team that combines the necessary expertise and resources from critical federal and state partners.
Some of the scams we anticipate, or are already seeing include: individuals selling fake vaccines or cures for COVID-19; websites selling fake supplies, including face masks and medical equipment; individuals spoofing the phone numbers of health organizations who demand payment over the phone; and individuals requesting donations for fake charities.
We ask you to report any instances of these scams to our Task Force. We will share your reports with the appropriate agencies across state and federal governments and pool our resources to hold bad actors accountable. Our goal is to protect you by investigating jointly and taking action decisively.
Already, the Office of Attorney General has received nearly 2,000 complaints about price gouging, including many instances in western Pennsylvania:
A drug store in Monroeville was charging $21 for a 12-roll pack of toilet paper; a grocery store in Robinson Township charging $51.33 for a pack of toilet paper; and a grocery store in Pittsburgh increased its prices on a 12-roll pack of Charmin to $19.39. This is disgraceful.
Other scams have been reported to the U.S. Attorney’s Office: a physician marketing unapproved COVID-19 test kits for $49; fraudsters getting seniors’ social security numbers by posing as Medicare representatives; and fraudulent emails with malicious links that download malware to steal banking and other sensitive personal information.
Our goals are clear. First, we want each of you to receive consistent and timely information about scams to protect you and your loved ones against current or potentially active efforts. To do that, we will provide clear and consistent warnings about COVID-19 fraud, including counterfeit goods, fake remedies, malicious websites and apps, and disingenuous charities. We will keep you informed about what we are seeing, and we will give you practical tips to protect yourself.
Second, we plan to quickly and efficiently combat scam operations to bring justice to individuals who have already been affected, and prevent the spread of a scam’s misinformation and harm. Whether criminally or civilly, we must stop those who seek to exploit this crisis. We will shut down websites, send out cease-and-desists letters, seize counterfeit goods, and ensure that these individuals are held accountable for their crimes.
If you see anything that resembles these scams, call 888-C19-WDPA (219-9372) or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. We will investigate every report and take legal action if necessary to serve justice.
We are here to protect and serve, but there are also steps you can take to protect yourself. When trying to identify a scam: independently verify the identity of any company, charity, or individual that contacts you regarding COVID-19. Check the websites and email addresses of the entity offering information, products or related services. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website is www.cdc.gov but scammers will use “cdc.com” or some other similar address.
Ignore any claims of a vaccine or cure that come from an email, phone call, or unsolicited contact. If a vaccine is announced, you will hear about it from legitimate news sources and government agencies. Additionally, visit the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (https://www.sec.gov/) to verify offers from any company that contacts you about potential investment opportunities related to COVID-19.
Please remember that government agencies will not call you to ask for your social security number, financial information or any direct payment. Until you verify, do not give out such information over the phone or email. Rest assured: during these difficult times our agencies remain on the job and vigilant. Through this joint Western Pennsylvania COVID-19 Task Force, we are bringing together state and federal resources to more effectively combat those seeking to exploit Pennsylvanians. This is a time to band together, not give in to unlawful greed.