Inside the U.S. government’s new $30 million effort to combat pandemic profiteering
Identity thieves are lying to trick you into giving up your personal financial information, which they will then use to steal from credit card companies by pretending to be you.
Scams have become so sophisticated and ubiquitous that it’s hard to know whether the calls, texts and emails are fake. Technology allows hucksters with distant landlines — and now mobile phones — to display local numbers in an effort to trick you to answer.
The scams are coming fast and furious, relentlessly conning people at a time when they are vulnerable.
Billions of dollars in stimulus payments are being sent to Americans, and that makes them a target for fraudsters. Coronavirus-related cons have given crooks another way into people’s bank accounts, Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, whom President Biden name acting chair of the Federal Trade Commission, said in an interview with The Washington Post.
“People are desperate,” Slaughter said. “They are struggling financially. They’re worried about their health. They’re dealing with child-care issues. And that’s why it’s great that the money is coming, but bad guys are seeing that desperation, too, and are taking advantage of it as they do. We’re just looking out for people who are trying to take advantage of that stimulus money and other related programs.”
The FTC received nearly 2.2 million consumer fraud reports last year, up almost 27 percent from the year before, including a surge of online shopping complaints in the early days of the pandemic. Consumers reported losing more than $3.3 billion to fraud, up from $1.8 billion a year earlier.
Last year, the FTC introduced ReportFraud.ftc.gov, an updated platform for consumers to file fraud complaints.
The FTC is seeing scams involving personal protective equipment (PPE). The agency has also pursued schemes involving the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which provides money to businesses to help them make payroll during the pandemic.
In the interview, Slaughter discussed the role the FTC is playing in chasing down and prosecuting pandemic profiteers.
Tucked in the third round of stimulus aid, largely unnoticed, was $30.4 million allocated to the FTC to fight not just the old consumer scams but also new schemes with a pandemic twist.
Under the American Rescue Plan, signed by Biden on March 11, $24 million went to fund full-time employees at the FTC to address unfair or deceptive acts or practices, including those related to the coronavirus. An additional $4.4 million would go to process and monitor consumer complaints received by the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network, including increased complaints about schemes related to the pandemic, and $2 million for consumer-related education to help consumers avoid coronavirus scams.
Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation about why this money is so important — and why more is probably needed.
Q: What type of covid-related scams are you seeing?
A: There are lots of pandemic profiteering challenges that we have, whether it’s scams related to PPE or vaccines or fake cures or economic business opportunities. People are promising desperate folks easy money that it turns out you have to pay a lot of money upfront to access this great new business opportunity. These are things that we see generally, even in normal times, but it’s accelerated and amplified by the economic desperation around covid-19.
We are particularly seeing economic scams. We sued a company that targeted struggling small businesses and induced them to submit loan applications by falsely claiming to be an approved lender for the Small Business Administration when they were not. We’ve sued a business for deceiving customers by sending mailers that featured a seal of the United States and a mock stimulus check and promised to get people federal stimulus benefits but actually just lured them to a used-car sale.
Q: Are there covid scams specifically targeting minorities?
A: Business-opportunity scams where companies target consumers with fake earnings claims. We sued a company that targeted Latino customers with false earning claims in Spanish-language ads. I think that these kinds of scams that particularly target communities of color are especially pernicious because they are doubling down on the disparities that we’re seeing across the board in health outcomes and economic fallout and basically everything associated with the pandemic.
Q: How do you get ahead of these scams?
A: It’s a two-step process. The first thing we have to do is educate consumers about what to look out for. And we do that in partnership with state and local authorities and in partnership with community advocacy groups. And we just launched a new Community Advocate Center that will help us reach communities that might not otherwise have the FTC immediately on their radar. Consumer education is a huge part of it. We don’t want people to fall victim to scams in the first place.
And then we do actually go after the scammers whenever we find them. We collect complaints and we pursue law enforcement action in coordination with state and local partners. We do that because there are many targets. It is hard to get all of them. But when we bring cases, we send a strong message that we are not going to tolerate predatory, deceptive, unfair behavior targeting communities of color or any other communities.
Q: Why is it important for people to report covid scams to the FTC?
A: Participating in reporting is a hugely important thing to do, both to help themselves and to help the broader community. When we go after companies, one of our top priorities is getting money back for consumers that are wronged. And that starts with knowing about the problem. If people are not reporting to us, we don’t know where to look for the next scams.