SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a lot of uncertainty and questions. That type of environment has created a golden era for scammers, eager to feast on people’s fear and hope.
COVID-19 scammers are hawking coronavirus miracle cures, easy access to unapproved testing and missing or defective protective equipment, according to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice and other state and federal watchdog agencies.
Don’t think it can’t happen to you. The FTC tracks the amount and cost of COVID-19 fraud on a daily basis. It currently reports 1,790 known scams foisted upon hapless residents of North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota, as of Thursday, Aug. 20.
The FTC estimates residents in the three states have lost about $1.6 million due to scams, with those scammed losing an average of between $260-$383 each.
The sales pitch for scams could come via email, phone call, text message or through fraudulent advertising online, on billboards and on websites, consumer protection agencies say.
So what are some of the top COVID-19 medical scams out there?
COVID-19 miracle cures
Don't be fooled. There is no cure for COVID-19, as the Food and Drug Administration continues to make clear. And while many vaccines are in development, it'll be months before those that pass extensive trials are ready for use.
In the meantime, scammers have taken advantage of that gap, shilling miracle cures after miracle cure.
The FTC and the FDA have issued more than 300 warnings to various scammers, including another round of warning letters announced on Aug. 14.
"If there’s a medical breakthrough, you’re not going to hear about it for the first time through an ad or sales pitch," the FTC wrote in a May blog post on COVID-19 scams.
The list of supposed COVID-19 treatments and cures is long, but include CDs that play special frequencies, electric zappers, dietary supplements and herbs, a card that uses "quantum theory technology" to kill COVID-19 within three feet, IV infusions of vitamins, stem cell therapy, colloidal silver, "sonic silicone facial brushes," and electromagnetic field shielding, among many, many others.
"Because the Coronavirus is spreading worldwide, a Level 3 Shield is recommended because it is powerful enough to deal with 5G and other strong types of EMF radiation," fraudulently claimed Montana-based BioElectric Shield Co. on its website, according to a warning letter sent to the company by the FTC in late April.
“There already is a high level of anxiety over the potential spread of coronavirus,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons in March, after an initial round of warnings were sent to alleged COVID-19 scammers. “What we don’t need in this situation are companies preying on consumers by promoting products with fraudulent prevention and treatment claims. These warning letters are just the first step. We’re prepared to take enforcement actions against companies that continue to market this type of scam.”
The FBI warned in June about scammer marketing fraudulent and unapproved COVID-19 antibody tests.
In theory, such tests would indicate evidence that you have had COVID-19 because your body has developed antibodies to fight it. Such tests, ones properly researched and approved by the FDA, do exist. But there are many more being sold by scammers online that aren't FDA approved and could give inaccurate results.
Even worse, scammers selling those kits are harvesting personal information that could be used in future identity theft scams, such as names, dates of birth and Social Security information, as well as private health and insurance information.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said in July that scammers have been offering COVID-19 tests to Medicare beneficiaries in exchange for personal information.
"Fraudsters are targeting beneficiaries in a number of ways, including telemarketing calls, text messages, social media platforms, and door-to-door visits," the HHS Office of the Inspector General announced.
The FBI is advising people to watch for FDA approval claims that aren't verified, tests that are heavily marketed, "free" testing offers and incentives for ongoing testing, and anyone telling you that you must take a test because the government is requiring you to do so.
Mask shipping scams
Demand for personal protective equipment, such as facemasks, gloves and gowns, has understandably skyrocketed amid the pandemic. That's been fertile ground for scammers looking to take money for false promises of shipped equipment, or if protective equipment does get shipped, it's not what was listed, or might be defective.
The FTC has been cracking down on companies who say they have equipment ready to ship, but don't, and may have never had it in the first place.
Federal agencies have also pursued companies who make false promises about what they're shipping customers, and then swap out promised items, or ship items such as facemasks, that are defective.