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Scam artists preying on coronavirus fears by offering masks, emergency loans, government checks

Military experts are constantly warning service members about social media scams that can affect them and their families. (DoD/Released)

The novel coronavirus has created an environment that con-artists are seizing on, from peddling medical masks and vaccines that don’t exist to offering no-interest emergency loans.

“This is a scammer’s paradise right now,” said Sue McConnell, president of the Cleveland Better Business Bureau. “The fact that many of us are worried, isolated, facing a disease that is a threat to all of us, and that this is happening on a global scale has created a breeding ground for fraud.”

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost is worried about a surge in scams as fraudsters try to capitalize on this crisis. “COVID-19 is not the only thing we have to protect ourselves against,” Yost said. “Thieves and crooks prey on fear and uncertainty.”

Authorities from the Ohio attorney general to the Ohio Bankers League to the U.S. Secret Service to the Federal Communications Commission are hearing reports of outrageous, heart-breaking efforts to scam innocent consumers. New schemes are emerging every day.

As always, consumers and businesses are urged to avoid answering unexpected phone calls or responding to unexpected emails or text messages. And if you do, don’t give out or confirm any personal information or click on any links or send any money to anyone you haven’t met previously.

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Here’s a compilation of some of the scams being reported:

Text messages promising emergency money to help cover everyday expenses. This scam exists in cities including Columbus. The link can compromise the security of your cellphone or computer.

Emails posing as the Center for Disease Control or the World Health Organization or other entities. The emails falsely promise important information to fight the virus or products that are in short supply. Opening an attachment or clicking on links can cause malware to infect your computer and compromise your passwords to financial websites or other important sites.

Efforts through Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites seek donations for charitable causes related to the coronavirus. Consumers should be extremely careful when considering donations. And never, ever buy iTunes gift cards or any kind of gift card and provide it over the phone or to a stranger in person. Individuals can research registered charities and nonprofit organizations through a database at the Ohio attorney general’s office https://charitableregistration.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/Charities/Research-Charities.aspx and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance’s website, www.give.org. People should also research any crowdfunding efforts.

Calls or emails or text messages promising to sell you medical masks, hand sanitizer or other protection products. The con-artists ask for upfront payments or deposits. The products are never sent. The BBB in Cleveland reports a company called “Juicy Trends” claiming to sell protective masks called “SafeBreath95.” The website was registered from the Bahamas. The company says it’s based in Scotland. It was selling three face masks for $195.

Door-to-door coronavirus testers are being reported to the BBB. The fraudsters are collecting money and offering to test the victim for coronavirus. ”This method of testing is not legitimate,” the BBB said. “Don’t give your personal or medical information to someone who has solicited you or allow strangers into your house.” The attorney general’s office said people should call law enforcement immediately if you see a suspicious person or if such a fraudster shows up on your doorstep.

Calls or text messages claiming to be from a representative of a gas or electric company or other utility. The calls say the household needs to get a new meter because of coronavirus. Of course there’s a cost of $300 or $600. But there’s no meter. There’s no such thing.

Offers for “all-natural and secret vaccines.” There are currently no vaccines or medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to prevent coronavirus. Don’t turn over your money or credit or debit cards to anyone making these claims. The Federal Trade Commission has issued warning letters to several companies that claim to have a product to cure or prevent the virus.

Unexpected calls from fraudsters claiming to be from your bank or a government agency. If this happens, hang up. If you believe the call could be legitimate, call the office’s phone number that you look up independently.

Unexpected emails from your company, or invitations to video conference calls from co-workers. With so many people working at home and communicating by email and video conference, con-artists are sending out requests that look legitimate but aren’t.

People can do three big things to protect themselves:

If you’re contacted by someone you don’t know or weren’t expecting to hear from, don’t click on links, return phone messages, offer any personal information or even confirm your name.

If you’re contacted by a company, investigate whether the entity has a working customer service number, a profile on the BBB, an actual street address, etc.

If you see an online ad or email or text message, watch out for stock photos. Many of the scams are reusing stock photos of masks or gloves or medications. If the same picture is used on many different websites, consumers should be leery. Consumers can use websites like tineye.com and image search on Google.

https://images.google.com/ and click on the little camera icon. For more information, https://support.google.com/websearch/answer/1325808?co=GENIE.Platform%3DDesktop&hl=en

For more information or to report a scam, go to:

bbb.org/coronavirus

https://www.fcc.gov/covid-scams

https://www.fcc.gov/consumers

https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/2020/03/checks-government

https://www.ohiobankersleague.com/pandemic

www.OhioProtects.org or call 800-282-0515.

BBB.org/ScamTracker

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html

https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/2020/03/ftc-fda-warnings-sent-sellers-scam-coronavirus-treatments

https://www.fcc.gov/scam-glossary

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© 2020 The Plain Dealer