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Don’t be fooled by coronavirus scams — or pay $20 for a four-pack of toilet paper

Money exchanging hands (Hloom.com)

Opportunity is knocking for crooks looking to profit from the pain and anxiety triggered by the pandemic. Don’t answer their call.

From online pitches for bogus COVID-19 vaccinations and home test kits, to fake offers for federal stimulus checks, officials say scammers are out in force trying to take advantage of a nation in crisis.

One of the most rapidly emerging schemes involves the federal stimulus checks headed to tens of millions of Americans.

The payments will begin to go out in the next three weeks — with no action required for the vast majority of people. However, certain people who typically don’t file tax returns will need to submit a simple tax return for 2019 to receive their payments. (For details on stimulus checks, also called economic impact payments, visit: www.irs.gov/coronavirus).

Experts are warning not to respond to emails, texts or phone calls offering help with stimulus checks — especially for a fee. No upfront payments or fees are required to get the money. Don’t give these peddlers a Social Security number, bank account number or any other account numbers.

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The IRS automatically will deposit the stimulus money directly into people’s bank accounts if they have direct deposit with the agency. Paper checks also are automatic, but will take longer. Anyone who offers to help get the money sooner, asks for your bank account number to deposit the check, or offers to get you a loan against your stimulus check is a scammer.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission advises consumers to hang up on robocalls, and avoid pressing any numbers. Fraudsters are using illegal robocalls to pitch everything from scam coronavirus treatments to work-at-home schemes.

“The recording might say that pressing a number will let you speak to a live operator or remove you from their call list, but it might lead to more robocalls instead,” according to the FTC.

The agency also is warning consumers to ignore offers for COVID-19 vaccinations and home test kits. “Scammers are trying to get you to buy products that aren’t proven,” the agency said.

There are no FDA-authorized home test kits or a vaccination for the virus.

With millions of people under stay-at-home orders, the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center issued an advisory this week warning people about the possibility of people going door-to-door posing as military or utility workers.

“Scammers may appear at your door trying to represent themselves as someone [calling] about a stimulus check, unemployment benefits, a test/cure for COVID-19 or quarantine orders,” the resource center said. “If someone does come by your door, ask for identification first and otherwise contact law enforcement directly,” the group said.

With the surge in online shopping, experts are also warning consumers to be more vigilant than ever about buying only from trusted sellers to avoid being snookered.

“Know who you’re buying from,” the Federal Trade Commission posted on its website. “Online sellers may claim to have in-demand products like cleaning, household and health and medical supplies when, in fact, they don’t.”

Price-gouging is an ongoing a problem as online sellers try to make extra profits on goods in short supply. Face masks, hand sanitizers, paper towels and toilet paper are all easy targets.

The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office is asking residents to report suspected instances of price-gouging, whether online or in stores, at [email protected]

“Ripping off consumers by jacking up prices in the middle of a public emergency is against the law,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said. “If you see the price of basic goods skyrocket, reach out to my office.”

Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency disaster declaration on March 6 triggered protections under state law against price gouging for consumers and businesses. Sellers are prohibited from hiking prices by more than 20% over the average price for those goods or services in the seven days preceding the declaration.

Last week, Mr. Shapiro said his office had already received nearly 3,000 tips about price gouging related to the pandemic. Although most businesses stop the practice after a phone call, the office has sent about 90 cease-and-desist letters to stores failing to cooperate, he said.

One was a store in Oakdale, which was selling a four-pack of toilet paper for $20. The store later slashed the price to $5.99. The AG’s office also stopped a store in suburban Philadelphia from selling a $2 bottle of hand sanitizer for $19.

Pennsylvania’s AG, along with 32 other attorneys general, recently sent a letter asking Amazon, Facebook, eBay, Walmart and Craigslist to do a better job monitoring price gouging by online sellers using their platforms.

The letter listed some examples: packs of face masks being sold for $40 and $50; an 8-oz. bottle of hand sanitizer listed at $40, and a two-liter bottle of hand sanitizer at $250.

U.S. Attorney Scott Brady in Pittsburgh has set up a special hotline and email address for reporting suspected COVID-19 fraud: 888-219-9372; [email protected]

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© 2020 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette