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Officials warn of scams, fraud, price gouging

In times of crisis, those who seek to take advantage of others often capitalize on that crisis in seeking their own profit. Officials are warning the public to be aware of that possibility during the time of the coronavirus pandemic.

FRAUD

U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town has urged the public to report suspected fraud schemes related to the coronavirus by calling the National Center for Disaster Fraud hotline, 1-866-720-5721, or to the NCDF email address disaster@leo.gov.

In coordination with the Department of Justice, Attorney General William Barr has directed U.S. attorneys to prioritize the investigation and prosecution of coronavirus fraud schemes.

 “Alabamians and Americans need to remain vigilant and not fall for the fraudsters, hucksters and con artists,” Town warned. “The Department of Justice and all of our law enforcement partners resolve to investigate and prosecute anyone seeking to illegally gain from this crisis.

Town noted that those in the elderly population are often targets. “Let’s not wash away our common sense,” he said. “We resolve to be vigilant.”

Examples of potential fraudulent schemes include:

  • Selling fake cures for COVID-19 online and engaging in other forms of fraud.
  • Phishing emails from entities posing as the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Malicious websites and apps that appear to share coronavirus-related information to gain and lock access to devices until payment is received.
  • Seeking donations fraudulently for illegitimate or non-existent charitable organizations.
  • Medical providers obtaining patient information for COVID-19 testing and then using that information to fraudulently bill for other tests and procedures.
  • The Northern District of Alabama coronavirus fraud coordinator is Assistant United States Attorney Robert O. Posey.
  • According to a press release from the FBI, members of the public should protect themselves and do their research before clicking on links purporting to provide information on the virus; donating to a charity online or through social media; contributing to a crowdfunding campaign; purchasing products online; or giving up personal information to receive money or other benefits.
  • The FBI advises everyone to be on the lookout for fake CDC emails. Fraudsters can use links in emails to deliver malware to the recipients computer to steal personal information or to lock the computer and demand payment.
  • The FBI is also warning about phishing emails, which might purport to be seeking charitable donations or offer general financial relief, airline carrier refunds, cures and vaccines or testing kits. “While talk of economic stimulus checks has been in the news cycle, government agencies are not sending unsolicited emails seeking your private information in order to send you money.”

The United States Department of the Treasury recently warned that calls, emails or other communications claiming to be from the treasury department or other federal or state agency, offering COVID-19 related grants, checks or stimulus payments in exchange for personal financial information or an advance fee, tax, or charge of any kind, including the purchase of gift cards, are scams. 

“Give no information, and if by telephone, just hang up and delete emails and text messages,” a department press release advises.

“We know con artists are opportunistic and use current events to cloak their schemes with an air of immediacy and legitimacy,” said Alabama Securities Commission Director Joseph P. Borg. “Never make an investment decision without understanding what you are investing in, who you are doing business with, where your money is going, how it will be used and how you can get it back.”

Borg said consumers should always ask if the salesperson and the securities or investments are registered with the Alabama Securities Commission – “then call us to verify they are in fact licensed or registered.”

INVESTMENT SCAMS

Borg also said investors should be on the lookout for scam artists trying to use the market downturn and the coronavirus to scare investors into so-called “safer, guaranteed investments.”

Alabamians with concerns about their retirement accounts or investments should talk to their financial professionals. “Avoid making decisions based on panic or fear,” said Borg.

Fraudsters, Borg said, are looking to capitalize on the recent volatility of the stock market. They will tout positive information about products related to COVID-19, like a new cure or vaccine venture, that will attract investors, and the information will be false. 

The more investors invest, the more the product price will be “pumped up,” Borg explained, and the fraudster will then quickly “dump” their stock, resulting in a substantial payout for them. The stock price will drop, and the remaining investors will lose their money.

To help investors identify common telltale signs of possible investment fraud, the Alabama Securities Commission has provided three questions to ask before making a new investment:

  1. Is the investment being offered with a guaranteed or high return with little or no risk? All investments carry risk. Anyone making a claim that an investment is “risk-free” is lying. No one can guarantee an investment return.
  2. Is there a sense of urgency or limited availability surrounding the investment? If the offer is legitimate, it will still be available at a later time.
  3. Is the person offering the investment licensed? Are the securities underlying the investment properly registered? Avoid unlicensed securities brokers and their investment products.

“Make sure you have all the facts and other information necessary to make an informed decision before turning over your money to another individual to invest on your behalf – afterward might be too late,” said Alabama Securities Commission Chief Deputy Director Amanda Senn.

Contact the ASC at 1-800-222-1253 to check out any person or financial professional offering an investment opportunity or investment advice for a fee, and the products they offer, for proper registration. Contact the ASC to report suspected fraud, inappropriate securities business practices or to obtain consumer information. The ASC provides free investor education and fraud prevention materials in print, on its website and through educational presentations upon request.

PRICE GOUGING

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall is warning those who would seek to illegally profit from the current public health emergency that Alabama’s price gouging law has been activated.

March 13 Gov. Kay Ivey declared a State Public Health Emergency in Alabama relating to the appearance of the coronavirus. Marshall said Alabama’s price gouging law comes into effect when the governor declares a State of Emergency, and it prohibits the “unconscionable pricing” of items for sale or rent.

“Alabamians should be on guard against those who would seek to prey upon them through price gouging of commodities and services for consumption or use as a direct result of the public health emergency,” said Marshall. “Furthermore, those who seek to profit during this time of emergency through price gouging will be subject to the law.”

Although what constitutes an “unconscionable price” is not specifically set forth in state law, a price that is 25 percent or more above the average price charged in the same area within the past 30 days – unless the increase can be attributed to a reasonable cost in connection with the rental or sale of the commodity – is a benchmark.

The penalty is a fine of up to $1,000 per violation, and those determined to have willfully and continuously violated this law may be prohibited from doing business in Alabama.

Alabamians who want to file an illegal price gouging report can visit https://www.alabamaag.gov/consumercomplaint or call 1-800-392-5658 to receive a form by mail to complete and return.

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