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Fighting Coronavirus scams: Taking stock

By: Andrew Smith, Director, FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection

FTC- Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the FTC has released dozens of warning letters against people trying to make an illegal buck off the Coronavirus. More than a month in, it seems like a good time to look back at what’s happened. If you follow this blog, you’ll know these have been busy weeks – with advice about spotting the many scams we’re all facing, news of the warning letters sent on a wide range of scams, and some enforcement actions filed.

You might wonder: Why send letters? But they are working. And, given the scope of the scams out there right now, we want to get the best and fastest results we can with the most efficient tool we have. Right now, for these Coronavirus-related issues, that’s warning letters.

In general, here’s how it goes:

  • We spot someone advertising something with no proof that it works – and, in many cases, telling outright lies about its wonders.
  • We send a letter pointing out the illegal things they’re doing.
  • They then have 48 hours to tell us what they’ve done to resolve the problems we’ve raised.

In nearly all cases so far, those who get the letters have stopped making the false claims or selling the scammy thing – whether cures from a product or earnings from a work-at-home scheme. Within 48 hours: no more lying to people, no more stealing people’s money. During a crisis like this, we’ve prioritized stopping as many bad actors as we can, as quickly as we can. And when a warning letter will do that, we’ll take that win.

Most of the letters sent so far relate to the first scams out of the box: the treatments and cures – many of which we heard about from you. These treatments and cures were, of course, not at all what they claimed to be. The sellers peddled everything from teas and essential oils to IV or ozone “therapies,” stem cell treatments, and high doses of Vitamin C. All of these products have had one thing in common: There was no evidence – none – that they work against the Coronavirus.

The warning letters are working in other areas, too. We’ve sent 13 letters to VoIP service providers and other companies, telling them we see how they’re helping illegal telemarketers or robocallers make calls related to COVID-19, and telling them to cut it out. And, just two weeks ago, we sent 10 letters to multi-level marketing (MLM) companies for making exaggerated earnings claims for their business opportunity selling fake Coronavirus treatments or cures from home. These companies hit the daily double: false income claims for their work-at-home program and unsubstantiated health claims for their products.

But sometimes you need more firepower to get the desired result. It took a lawsuit to stop a company that, allegedly, pretended to be affiliated with the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, fooling hundreds – if not thousands – of small businesses. And, last week, we filed suit against Whole Leaf Organics for allegedly claiming to treat not only the Coronavirus, but also cancer with CBD. Both cases are now pending.

What we know about COVID-19 changes every week. And right now, the scammers are shifting their focus to the economic impact payments, among other things, to find new ways to get your money or information. But here are some things that remain true:

  • Scammers are peddling cures and treatments with no proof they work. Remember: Right now, there is nothing that has been proven to prevent COVID-19.
  • Anyone who tells you to pay them by gift card, money transfer, cash, or Bitcoin is a scammer. Period. And, if they say they’re from the government, they’re not.
  • Never give your Social Security, bank account, or credit card number to anyone who contacts you. Again, not even if they say they’re from the government.

If you remember those three things, and share them in your community, we can cut scammers’ success rates. Keep up with the latest from the FTC by signing up for Business Alerts. And, when you spot a scam, tell the FTC: ftc.gov/complaint. Because you can help us keep working to put a stop to these scams.

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