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The Coronavirus Outbreak Has Been Accompanied By A Surge In Consumer Fraud


While states grapple with how to stop the spread of the coronavirus, they are also waging a battle against scammers. Law enforcement officials throughout the country say they are seeing a surge in fraud and consumer rip-offs since the pandemic began. NPR investigative correspondent Cheryl W. Thompson reports on what they are doing to try to stop it.

CHERYL W THOMPSON, BYLINE: Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson says scammers are hitting close to home.

BOB FERGUSON: My wife showed me a text that she received on her cellphone.

THOMPSON: He says the text showed up around the time that there was talk of the government offering payments to people to help during the crisis.

FERGUSON: And on her phone, it said, essentially, hey; good news. Click here to get your $1,000. So, of course, I sent that to my team to call up on. It's a good example that scammers will literally go after everybody and try and even use current news and utilize that.

THOMPSON: Bogus text messages are just some of the many scams targeting people. In California, Attorney General Xavier Becerra says he's gotten complaints about sham charities and other Internet rip-offs cropping up across his state. He says his office will pursue people who are violating the law, but he says it can be hard to crack down on these schemes because the people behind them often operate outside the U.S.

XAVIER BECERRA: We typically find that over the Internet, and that's where it's a lot easier for these scammers outside of the U.S. to take advantage of Americans.

THOMPSON: Federal officials on Wednesday charged a southern California man with attempted wire fraud. They claimed he solicited investments in a company marketing pills to prevent people from contracting the coronavirus. Government officials say there is no treatment or cure for the disease, and the case is the first federal criminal charge against someone in the U.S. originating from the public health crisis. That's according to Nick Hanna, the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California.

NICK HANNA: We do want to send the message that we are out in force. We're going to be aggressive on people who try to take advantage of the current situation, and, you know, we are not going to be lenient about it.

THOMPSON: Federal and state officials in Virginia have launched a task force aimed specifically at clamping down on coronavirus-related scams.

G ZACHARY TERWILLIGER: We wanted to stand it up quickly and immediately to get coordination across the commonwealth because per the Department of Justice's mandate, we needed to get on this to stop these frauds now, not months from now.

THOMPSON: That's G. Zachary Terwilliger, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. He says scammers typically go after people when they're most vulnerable. It happened after 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombings and other disasters.

TERWILLIGER: Individuals know that folks are vulnerable right now. They're nervous right now. There's economic uncertainty right now. They're preying on all of those things, and they're offering false hope, and they're offering fake solutions. And so we want to jump on that now to mitigate the harm.

THOMPSON: Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey says her office has also seen a steady rise in complaints over the last few weeks - fake charities, bogus vaccines.

MAURA HEALEY: Just yesterday my office saw on Instagram a post by a company that said it was selling Vitamin C IV treatments for coronavirus. And, you know, we immediately got in touch with the company, sent a cease and desist letter. And they took it down.

THOMPSON: She's also calling for the Justice Department to do more.

HEALEY: This is a federal problem. This is a national problem. So all of us in law enforcement and those charged with protecting people's health should be doing everything possible that we can.

THOMPSON: Healey says these are sophisticated rip-offs and urges people to report any fraud like this to law enforcement.

Cheryl W. Thompson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.