By Ryan Lippe, Ohio Attorney General’s Office, Consumer Protection Section
Published as part of the Ohio State Bar Association’s Law You Can Use series.
Scam artists are known to strike during crises, choosing to exploit others when people are distracted, fearful or otherwise vulnerable.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been no exception. Scammers have been busy during the past few months, seeking to take advantage of the public’s preoccupation with the virus. Scams take different forms and it is important to be able to recognize them and know when to report them.
Since the pandemic began, the scam-related complaints fielded by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office have largely focused on familiar frauds, but the scammers have tweaked their tactics to reflect the times.
For example, a recent complaint described a scammer pretending to be the victim’s grandchild in need of money. In the case, the scammer claimed to need money because he had been delayed in Philadelphia because of the pandemic.
Another Ohioan reported having received a fraudulent social-media message indicating that a “friend,” stuck in Italy due to the pandemic, needed Google Play gift cards for a sick relative in the United States.
If you receive a call from someone claiming to be a friend or relative in need of financial assistance, you should:
- Confirm with another friend or family member that this person is truly out of town and in need of money;
- Confirm that the caller is who he or she claims to be by calling a phone number you know to be theirs and
- Ask the caller something only they would know.
Some scams involve “phishing.” These are attempts to obtain victims’ personal information and/or money. For example, scammers have claimed to represent government agencies in an attempt to gain bank account information under the guise of needing such data for a stimulus payment. An instant message sent to one Ohio consumer falsely stated that she would have to send money to get her stimulus payment.
Beware of emails and other efforts to phish for your personal, financial and medical information. When in doubt, do not share. If the source claims to be your bank or a government agency, confirm its legitimacy by calling the organization at a phone number you have verified.
“Ransomware” is another form of online scam. Whenever you are texting or online, avoid clicking on unknown links or pop-ups and never download suspicious email attachments. Doing so could infect your devices with malicious software designed to steal personal information or lock your computer until you pay a “ransom.”
Consumers should also be wary of any attempts to sell them virus-related products, since they may be fakes or nonexistent. As the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports, “There currently are no vaccines, pills, lotions, lozenges or other prescription or over-the-counter products available to treat or cure coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) online or in stores.”
The FTC also warns: “Scammers might call to offer things like a ‘COVID-19 kit,’ ‘coronavirus package’ or Medicare benefits related to the virus. But they’ll ask you to verify personal information like your bank account, Social Security, or Medicare numbers. If you get a call from someone who says they’re a Medicare representative and they ask for this information, hang up. It’s a scam, not Medicare calling.”
Follow these tips to avoid other coronavirus-related scams:
- Watch out for emails claiming to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or other expert sources with special advice or information about the coronavirus. Legitimate information is available free on the CDC’s website.
- Research nonprofit organizations and crowdfunding campaigns before making a donation. A database of registered charities is available on the Ohio Attorney General’s website. Avoid groups that pressure you into donating, and never donate via cash, gift cards, wire transfer or prepaid money card – the preferred payment methods of scammers.
- Be cautious of anyone going door to door offering coronavirus testing or temperature readings and requesting personal information. Call a local law enforcement agency immediately if you see a suspicious person. Never let strangers into your home.
Knowing and following these five important “R’s” in general will help you protect yourself and your wallet:
Research businesses and charities with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and the Better Business Bureau. Ask family members and friends for recommendations.
Remember that scammers’ preferred payment methods are wire transfers, gift cards and prepaid money cards.
Relax! Don’t feel pressured to act immediately, even if someone threatens that you will lose money or be arrested.
Report scams to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office at 800-282-0515.
Realize that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
If you are the victim of a scam or fraud, contact the Ohio General’s Office at www.OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov or 800-282-0515. They will pursue the scammers on a case-by-case basis and will guide you through the process.
About the Author
Ryan Lippe is a consumer educator in the Consumer Protection Section of the Office of Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost. To report a scam, contact the Ohio Attorney General’s Office at www.OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov or 800-282-0515.
Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. This article is not intended to be legal advice. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from a licensed attorney.