By Colin D. A. MacDonald
The rapid spread of the novel coronavirus has been a source of fear and confusion for Oregonians and consumers across the country. The Federal Trade Commission, along with several other federal and state agencies, is warning consumers to be on the lookout for scams that take advantage of the current crisis – and warning businesses that the nation’s consumer protection laws still apply.
The FTC has launched a special website, www.ftc.gov/coronavirus, with regular advice and updates. The agency advises consumers to be wary of claims of cures and vaccinations currently circulating. Some key warnings include:
- Consumers should continue regular techniques of avoiding scams, like researching charities before donating and not clicking links from unknown sources.
- Scammers are using illegal robocalls to pitch everything from scam coronavirus treatments to work-at-home schemes. If you receive a robocall from an unknown source: hang up, do not press any numbers, and do not say anything. Even if the recording says that this will place consumers on a do-not-call list or speak to a live operator, it may lead to more calls.
- Although the government may send out checks to assist struggling Americans, that has not happened yet. If it does, the government will never require you to pay money upfront to get your check; and it will never call you to ask for your Social Security number, bank account number, or credit card number.
- Scammers may pose as the Centers for Disease Control or other public health agencies in an effort to get consumers’ personal information. If you get a call from someone claiming to be from the government, you can always ask to call them back using their agency’s public phone number or email them at an email address ending in “.gov.”
- As more Americans work from home, it is more important than ever to prioritize cybersecurity. Protecting both home and work computers and networks will help prevent data breaches and even identity theft.
In addition to the FTC’s consumer education efforts, the agency along with the Food and Drug Administration sent warning letters to seven companies who made claims that their products treat, cure, or protect against the coronavirus. The warning letters remind businesses that “it is unlawful under the FTC Act, 15 U.S.C. 41 et seq., to advertise that a product can prevent, treat, or cure human disease unless [the advertiser] possess[es] competent and reliable scientific evidence.”
The FTC is not alone in warning the public about scammers taking advantage of the current crisis. The Oregon Department of Justice similarly alerted consumers about coronavirus scams in the state. The federal Securities and Exchange Commission also warned investors about coronavirus-related investment scams. The World Health Organization cautioned the public about scammers pretending to be the WHO as a means of stealing money or sensitive information.
Consumers who suspect they are being scammed can report their scam to the FTC online at www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov or by phone at 877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). Even though FTC staff are taking precautions to protect themselves and the public against the coronavirus, they continue their work to protect America’s consumers.
Colin D. A. MacDonald is a Seattle-based consumer protection attorney for the Federal Trade Commission. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Commission or of any individual Commissioner.