By Chris Caraveo
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, residents and businesses have been falling victim to scams, and authorities and legislators are working to curtail financial losses.
As of May 28, the Internet Crime Complaint Center received nearly the same amount of complaints in 2020 — about 320,000 — as they had for the entirety of 2019 — about 400,000. About 75% of these complaints are frauds and swindles, presenting a challenge for the FBI’s criminal program given the sheer volume of submissions.
Over at the Federal Trade Commission, officials are making more state-level information available to the public about the complaints it receives from consumers related to COVID-19, with reports about online shopping problems topping the list of complaints in most states.
Under its expanded reporting, the FTC is releasing the numbers of different types of fraud, Do Not Call, and other complaints received from consumers in each state. The FTC began releasing the COVID-19-related complaint data in late March 2020 and is now releasing more details about the types of complaints it has received from consumers in each state.
So far, the FTC has received more than 91,000 total COVID-19-related complaints between Jan. 1 and June 8. American consumers have reported losing a total of more than $59.2 million to COVID-19-related fraud. California has reported the largest number of COVID-19-related complaints.
In Arizona, consumers reported losing a total of nearly $860,000 to fraud related to the pandemic, with a median loss of $261. In addition to online shopping, other top COVID-19-related fraud complaints from Arizona consumers include reports about vacation and travel problems and mobile text messages.
The COVID-19-related online shopping complaints from consumers include reports about items not arriving or not arriving when promised and items that are different than advertised. File a consumer complaint online or by calling 1-877-382-4357.
As businesses — especially small ones — continue to reel from the COVID-19 pandemic, a new report shows there is $130 billion left in the Paycheck Protection Program, but small business owners are at-risk following an unprecedented rise in online scams.
Arizona ranks No. 27 in the country with 10,898 approved loans totaling $3.5 billion in PPP aid to date. Currently, the FBI’s PPP Fraud Working Group is investigating $42 million in fraud, and the FTC has received 36,000 reports of fraud costing victims $46.2 million. Google reported it is blocking 18 million scam emails every single day.
In a statement, the FBI says they have seen the sale of counterfeit personal protective equipment, fraudulent unemployment insurance claims, and even criminals who are engaging in online predatory behavior targeting children who are continuing their education from home.
The following are four common PPP scams in progress and how to avoid them.
Phishing Scam: The scammer will send a fake email claiming to be from the SBA encouraging a business to apply for a PPP loan. They will provide a link to click on and ask for personal information. Clicking the link infects devices with malware and viruses that steal personal information. Scammers can pretend to be the business, apply for loans, and steal their finances.
The SBA will not emails out of the blue asking businesses to apply. Do not click on any suspicious links.
Fake Fees and Fast Money Scam: Scammers contact by phone or email and claim that a business needs to pay a small fee to apply for a PPP Loan. They offer to “fast-track” the application for an additional fee.
However, businesses will only get a PPP Loan through an approved site, and there is no fee or fast-track process. Anybody saying otherwise is a fraud.
Robocall Scam: Scammers are calling people pretending to be from the SBA and asking for confidential information. If a business has already applied for a loan, they say they need it to verify the account. They use that information to steal funds from the bank or commit fraud attributed to the business.
Keep in mind, the SBA will never call to verify application or advertise their PPP Loan program. If you get a call similar to this, hang up the call, block the caller, and avoid giving them information.
Fake Lender Scam: Several businesses are pretending to be lenders and send you a fake application. Once you fill out the form, however, that business has your personal and confidential information that they can use to steal your hard-earned funds.
Always verify the lender before applying for the loan. Only approved lenders by the SBA can administer PPP Loans. To find out if the lender you are applying with is approved to distribute PPP Loans, visit www.sba.gov/paycheckprotection/find.
If you encounter a PPP scam, contact local law enforcement or file a complaint with the FTC.
Arizona officials respond to scams
Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) recently introduced bipartisan legislation increasing FTC penalties for coronavirus-related scams. The bill expands FTC authority to stop false advertising during the coronavirus pandemic by increasing civil and criminal penalties on scammers.
“Increasing penalties for coronavirus-related scams helps protect Arizona seniors from fraudsters seeking to take advantage of this public health emergency,” Ms. Sinema stated.
The Senate also recently approved Ms. Sinema’s bipartisan resolution with Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) designating May 15 as National Senior Fraud Awareness Day. In March, Ms. Sinema and a bipartisan group of senators urged the FTC to protect Arizona seniors from COVID-19 related scams. Given that the most severe cases of COVID-19 in the nation are among seniors, bad actors have used the heightened public fears to target seniors.
Ms. Sinema and Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) have been partnering with Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich to alert seniors of COVID-19 related scams and provide seniors with helpful resources in case they are victims of bad actors.
In addition, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved the Improving Social Security’s Service to Victims of Identity Theft Act. The bill creates a single point of contact at the Social Security Administration to assist identity theft victims and solve cases more easily.
“Arizonans who have had their identity stolen deserve a simplified governmental process as they get back on their feet,” Ms. Sinema stated. “Creating a single point of contact at the Social Security Administration allows Arizona victims of identity theft to have their cases resolved quickly and easily.”
The legislation is endorsed by the AARP, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, Social Security Works, Association of Mature American Citizens, National Council of Social Security Management Associations, and the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives.