(STL.News) – United States Attorney John H. Durham, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo and FBI Special Agent in Charge David Sundberg today announced formation of a joint federal-state task force combatting COVID-19 related fraud in Connecticut. The task force will investigate and prosecute a wide range of misconduct related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including price gouging, healthcare and government program fraud, consumer and small business scams, lending scams, charities fraud, and cyber fraud. Violators may be subject to civil fines and penalties and/or state or federal criminal prosecution.
“The Justice Department is prioritizing the investigation and prosecution of COVID-19 fraud schemes and individuals who are exploiting this public health crisis for personal gain,” said U.S. Attorney Durham. “Our office has a dedicated COVID-19 Fraud Coordinator who is working closely with our state counterparts in the offices of the Attorney General and Chief State’s Attorney to review complaints and direct the prosecution of COVID-19-related crimes. Working together, we will disrupt these schemes and are prepared to prosecute those who seek to prey upon people’s fears or sympathy and illegally profit from this pandemic.”
“To those who seek to use this crisis as an opportunity to cheat, scam and defraud—stop. The Office of the Attorney General is working hand in hand with our state and federal enforcement partners to aggressively investigate and prosecute COVID-19 related misconduct. Our office has received over a thousand complaints regarding price gouging, scams and other schemes and our attorneys and investigators are following up on each and every one. If you are aware of COVID-19 related fraud and abuse, we want to know about it,” said Attorney General Tong.
“We at the FBI are fully committed to this multi-agency Task Force and pledge our resources to combatting those attempting to take advantage of Connecticut residents during this vulnerable time,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Sundberg
The COVID-19 Fraud Task Force highlighted key areas of concern:
Stimulus Check Scams: The Task Force is warning residents to be cautious of scams involving COVID-19 federal stimulus checks. The federal government will never charge fees or ask you to pay money to receive your check. The federal government will never call to ask for your Social Security number, bank account, or credit card number.
Charities Fraud: Scammers see our desire to help one another during a crisis as an opportunity. Before making any donation, please check the facts and make sure you are getting accurate information from a reputable source. See guidance from the Office of the Attorney General here. Check to make sure any organization you are supporting is officially registered, by going to verified sources like the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection, Better Business Bureau, Guidestar, or other sites listed in our guidance. Do not fall prey to high pressure tactics. If you receive a call or solicitation seeking a donation, take your time to get the facts. There is no need to commit to support on the spot.
Price Gouging: The Office of the Attorney General and the U.S. Attorney’s Office are following up on hundreds of complaints regarding price gouging, including various types of health and medical resources necessary to respond to the spread of COVID-19. During civil preparedness and public health emergencies, price gouging is against Connecticut and federal law. Price gouging or profiteering means increasing the price of an item for sale by more than could be justified in the ordinary course of business market fluctuations – particularly in light of prior margins or profit per item. Price gouging may result in federal criminal prosecution or Connecticut enforcement action.
Hoarding and PPE Procurement Scams: The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a Notice pursuant to President Trump’s Executive Order 13910 and the Defense Production Act, which designated health and medical resources necessary to respond to the spread of COVID-19 that are scarce or the supply of which would be threatened by excessive accumulation. These designated materials are subject to the hoarding prevention measures authorized under the Executive Order and the Act. Individuals or businesses that violate the Act will be subject to prosecution.
Phishing, Spoofing and Cyber Fraud: The Task Force warned Connecticut residents of widespread COVID-19 related cyber fraud. The Office of the Attorney General is aware of numerous reports of phishing attempts via email and text message regarding COVID-19 assistance and related aid. Do not click on links in unsolicited emails. Be wary of electronic communications purporting to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization. Be on alert for messages that request your personal information in exchange for benefits or relief. Make sure you are visiting legitimate, official websites for up-to-date information about COVID-19.
Healthcare and Government Program Fraud: Connecticut healthcare providers have been given additional regulatory flexibility to enhance their ability to treat patients impacted by the COVID-19 public health crisis. Included among these recent changes are greater access for telemedicine, audio-only telephonic medicine and modifications to allow certain providers to practice prior to licensure. The Attorney General’s Antitrust and Government Program Fraud Department is taking affirmative steps to ensure that the Connecticut Medicaid program is protected from fraudsters and scammers who may try and take advantage of the newly implemented policies and orders by submitting false claims for these services. To that end, the Department’s investigators are actively reviewing Medicaid paid claims data to identify any aberrant providers and/or target suspicious claim activity.
Small Business Loan Fraud Schemes: Small business owners working hard to stay afloat should be wary of scammers charging up-front or excessive fees to secure U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) loans or offering high-interest bridge loans. Scammers sometimes target businesses through email phishing schemes using SBA or bank logos.
Mortgage and Student Loan Relief Scams: Scammers often prey upon those facing financial hardship. Borrowers having difficulty making their monthly mortgage or student loan payments should be wary of scams promising bogus relief. Often requiring illegal up-front and reoccurring fees, scammers make deceptive claims regarding their ability to secure loan forgiveness. To avoid becoming a victim of such scams, those with mortgage or student loans should instead contact their loan servicers (the entity to whom they make their payments) to seek relief.