As the nation suffers due to the pandemic, con artists are pulling double duty in trying to separate people from their cash.


The Federal Trade Commission reports as of last week, victims in the U.S. have lost more than $13 million amid scams related to COVID-19.


State and federal officials in Missouri this week issued guidance to consumers and discussed ways their officers are trying to enhance consumer protections. Attorney General Eric Schmitt, in a Friday news release, stated the Consumer Protection Section has been working throughout the pandemic.


“From over a thousand consumers called to multiple legal actions, there’s no question that our hotline operators, advocates, investigators, and lawyers are doing important work on behalf of the Missourians they serve,” Schmitt said in the release.


The FBI Kansas City Field Office this week released a media package with several videos detailing some of the scams most affecting the public. In those, spokeswoman Bridget Patton discusses how con artists are attacking victims on a number of fronts and how the public can defend themselves.


“Fraudsters will take advantage of any opportunity to steal your money, your personal information or both,” Patton said. “They are using the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, to further their efforts. The FBI is asking the public to remain vigilant in protecting their personal information.”


Patton said customers should exercise caution on social media, job and other internet sites as well as when checking email. Computer users should not click on spam messages or links within unsolicited emails, as those are traditional routes used to infect machines with ransomware or other malicious code.


Schmitt early in the pandemic sued Jim Bakker, effectively shutting down the Branson-based televangelist who was claiming his “Silver Solution” products would prevent COVID-19.


In the weeks that followed, the attorney general's office wrote it received 1,144 consumer complaints about product offerings and another 1,274 complaints on price gouging. In response, the office has issued 10 cease and desist letters statewide, the office stated.


Schmitt spokesman Chis Nuelle said one of the biggest scams floating around the state right now is regarding the federal stimulus checks. In this swindle, scammers text or email people telling them they “need to sign up” to receive the economic assistance payment.


The scammers in the messages in some cases pose as treasury agents and when they receive the victim’s personal information, it is used by criminals or sold on the dark web.


Even citizens’ spirit of charity is being preyed upon amid the pandemic. The fraudulent solicitations come in many forms, Patton said, such as crowd-sourcing, email campaigns or cold calls. A solicitor refusing to provide information about its work or how the donation will be used are good indicators of fraud.


Patton said citizens should always check with the organization they wish to support and go directly to its website instead.


“Do not provide personal or financial information to anyone who solicits contributions,” Patton said.


Medical scams are also prevalent amid the pandemic. Recently, a new one emerged involving a message sent to people’s phones that they recently came in contact with a COVID-19 positive individual and they should self-isolate and click on the link provided. The link is then used to hack personal information.


Patton said scams have also been reported where door-to-door or online salesmen offer fake test kits or cures. They then acquire personal, medical and financial data, which is used for criminal endeavors or sold.


“Unfortunately, there is currently no cure, approved treatment or vaccine for COVID-19,” Patton said. “Legitimate medical professionals and scientists throughout the US are working hard to change that. At the same time, scammers are working hard to sell fake cures and vaccines.”


Traditional scams such as robocalls and sweepstakes continue, Nuelle wrote in an email. The office website has additional information on the latest scams, as does the FBI website, the FTC and the Better Business Bureau.


Although many are staying at home and safe from the Coronavirus, scammers are still working overtime to steal your personal information, money, or more,” Nuelle said. “Missourians should be extra vigilant in these times. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”


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ppratt@columbiatribune.com


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