West Virginia, feds launch task force for coronavirus scams

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP/WHSV) — A task force to prosecute scams in West Virginia during the coronavirus pandemic has been launched by state and federal officials.

The West Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Task Force will investigate online, phone and price-gouging scams targeting people in the state, the Department of Justice said in a news release Tuesday.

“Our Consumer Protection Division and its investigators have fielded hundreds of reports from those faced with price gouging, landlord-tenant issues and vacation/event cancellations,” West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said.

The state has been sending warning letters to businesses to protect consumers, Morrisey added.

Other scams include people attempting to sell fake cures for the virus as well as fake shops, websites and social media accounts claiming to sell high-demand medical supplies, such as surgical masks.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

Scammers are also targeting people through fraudulent charity accounts, sending emails posing as global health organizations, and as doctors to demand payment for treating a friend or relative for the virus.

The task force, which will be led by two U.S. attorneys and a deputy state attorney general in West Virginia, will include multiple state and federal investigators, including the FBI.

“The FBI is fully committed to address criminal activity during this unprecedented time - especially cybercrime,” said David W. Archery, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Richmond Division. “We encourage the American public to continue being vigilant, and take steps to protect themselves against those that may exploit the concerns surrounding COVID-19 as a means to steal your money.

"Consider these tips: Do not open attachments or click on links from senders you do not recognize; Verify the information being shared actually originates from a legitimate source; Do not share your logins, banking information or other personal information in response to an email; and only visit websites that you have manually typed their domains into your browser. If you believe you are a victim of an internet scam or want to report suspicious activity, visit the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov.”

Coronavirus scams to look out for:

Many people have been trying to take advantage of people's worries around the coronavirus to steal information and make money.

Some examples of coronavirus and COVID-19 scams, provided by the Better Business Bureau and by the FTC, include:

• Government relief check scams: Scammers send you a message make a social media post claiming you qualify for a COVID-19 government grant and just need to click a link to fill out the "necessary" personal information. In the process, your identifying information is stolen.

What to do: No matter what the message, don’t click! In addition to taking your money, these sites can also download malware to your device and use your information for identity theft.

• Treatment scams: Scammers are offering to sell fake cures, vaccines, and advice on unproven treatments for COVID-19.

• Supply scams: Scammers are creating fake shops, websites, social media accounts, and email addresses claiming to sell medical supplies currently in high demand, such as surgical masks. When consumers attempt to purchase supplies through these channels, fraudsters pocket the money and never provide the promised supplies.

What to do: Check out the seller by searching online for the person or company’s name, phone number and email address, plus words like “review,” “complaint” or “scam.” If everything checks out, pay by credit card and keep a record of your transaction. If you’re concerned about the pricing of products in your area, contact your state consumer protection officials.

• Provider scams: Scammers are also contacting people by phone and email, pretending to be doctors and hospitals that have treated a friend or relative for COVID-19, and demanding payment for that treatment.

• Charity scams: Scammers are soliciting donations for individuals, groups, and areas affected by COVID-19. Some scammers use names that sound a lot like the names of real charities. This is one reason it pays to do some research before giving. Money lost to bogus charities means less donations to help those in need.

What to do: You can use these organizations to help research legitimate charities before giving.

• Phishing scams: Scammers posing as national and global health authorities, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are sending phishing emails designed to trick recipients into downloading malware or providing personal identifying and financial information. If you click on a link, they can install ransomware or other programs that can lock you out of your data. Scammers often use familiar company names or pretend to be someone you know.

What to do: Protect your computer by keeping your software up to date and by using security software, your cell phone by setting software to update automatically, your accounts by using multi-factor authentication, and your data by backing it up.

• App scams: Scammers are also creating and manipulating mobile apps designed to track the spread of COVID-19 to insert malware that will compromise users’ devices and personal information.

• Robocall scams: Scammers are using illegal robocalls to pitch everything from scam Coronavirus treatments to work-at-home schemes.

What to do: Hang up. Don’t press any numbers. The recording might say that pressing a number will let you speak to a live operator or remove you from their call list, but it might lead to more robocalls, instead.

• Investment scams: Scammers are offering online promotions on various platforms, including social media, claiming that the products or services of publicly traded companies can prevent, detect, or cure COVID-19, and that the stock of these companies will dramatically increase in value as a result. These promotions are often styled as "research reports," make predictions of a specific "target price," and relate to microcap stocks, or low-priced stocks issued by the smallest of companies with limited publicly available information.

• Price Gouging scams: Individuals and businesses may sell essential goods, like hand sanitizer, for significantly higher prices than in a non-emergency setting. It is legally considered price gouging when the price of one of these products increases more than 20 percent its price one week prior to an emergency declaration from the Commonwealth of Virginia.

What to do: Anti-price gouging statutes are in effect because of statewide states of emergency. If you see price gouging, you should report it to Attorney General Herring’s Consumer Protection Section. You can do that by calling (800) 552-9963, emailing consumer@oag.state.va.us, or going through the online Price Gouging Complaint Form. More info is here.

• Misinformation and rumors: Scammers, and sometimes well-meaning people, share information that hasn’t been verified.

What to do: Before you pass on any messages, and certainly before you pay someone or share your personal information, do some fact checking by contacting trusted sources. For information related to the Coronavirus, visit What the U.S. Government is Doing. There you’ll find links to federal, state and local government agencies.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also has a breakdown of even more coronavirus-related scams here.

If you believe you have been the victim of fraud, or need more information about COVID-19, click here.

For more information from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, click here.

To report fraud directly to the FBI, click here.

And remember: government agencies do not communicate through social media avenues like Facebook. So, be wary of unsolicited messages. Also, do not pay any money for a "free" government grant.