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The COVID-19 pandemic has given scammers another opportunity to prey upon the fears of vulnerable people concerned about their health and job losses, say law enforcement officials who monitor such activity.
“We have seen early on that scammers are going to use this health crisis to play on people’s fears to perpetuate a whole slew of old and new scams,” Colleen Tessler, the senior project manager with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said in a conference call recently that included U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
Tessler said since Jan. 1 there have been 55,000 COVID related-complaints totaling more than $40 million, with an average per person loss of $458.
Tessler was joined on the call by Brandon Garod of the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office, Kevin McKeon with the Internal Revenue Service, Brian Evans, an inspector with the United States Postal Inspector Service, and Todd Fahey of the New Hampshire chapter of AARP (American Association of Retired Persons).
Scams are an ongoing problem that law enforcement is continually trying to thwart but they are “particularly horrendous at a time when people are concerned about their health and losing their jobs,” Shaheen said at the start of the hour-long conference call.
Tessler said the FTC has also heard of nursing homes and long-term care facilities telling residents who rely on Medicaid they are required to sign over to the institution their federal stimulus check of $1,200.
“That is wrong,” Tessler said. “They cannot seize the stimulus payment because the resident is on Medicaid.”
The overarching message to citizens is to resist responding to anything they receive that could potentially be a scam. With today’s technology, scams can arrive by text, email, robocall or by regular mail.
With the coronavirus creating a lot of fear among citizens, Tessler said many scams will offer fake cures, vaccines and treatments for the virus.
“Medical representatives will never call you to give you special access to a vaccine or put you in line for testing or treatment,” Tessler said.
She urged people not to click on links in unfamiliar emails because it could lead to a virus on your computer.
“Resist the urge to act in haste,” Tessler said.
Garod, a senior assistant attorney general in the state’s Consumer Protection Bureau, said education is the best weapon against scams, which he suggests fall into two broad categories.
The first tactic uses a “sense of urgency,” Garod said. The communication will seek money or personal information with a warning that something bad will happen if the person does not act immediately. Garod said the urgency aspect should be a red flag, as should any request for “unusual source of payment” such as a gift card or bitcoin.
Garod said the Attorney General’s Office has received multiple complaints about a letter or text message where the scammer says they have tapped into the victim’s phone or computer and used the webcam to record the person doing embarrassing things on their computer. Unless the scammers received $1,000 in bitcoin within 24 hours they will send the embarrassing to friends and family, they say.
“This is a recent example of an urgency type scam,” Garod said.
The other type Garod described is a long-term scam that looks to develop a relationship, often with lonely people who are most likely elderly. Once the relationship is established with some level of trust, there will often be a catastrophe of some sort – need to pay off debt or avoid an arrest – that requires money.
Garod and others on the call repeatedly said that scammers play upon emotions such as love, fear and greed to scam people. It is important to be vigilant and follow the adage, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, they said.
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