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Officials warn about COVID-19 scams

We’ll use the words of Jason Kenney, the premier of Alberta, Canada, speaking on scams and price gouging connected to the COVID-19 outbreak:

“To those who are trying to exploit seniors and others during this time of a public health emergency, there must be a special place in hell for people like that.”

Warnings already have surfaced here, from the federal level and from both Michigan and Wisconsin, of multiple scams that hike prices for scarce goods, peddle false treatments for COVID-19, seek to hijack the coming federal government aid or try to use the situation to get access to personal information.

This past week, U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge in Grand Rapids urged the public to continue reporting suspected coronavirus schemes by calling the National Center for Disaster Fraud hotline at 866-720-5721 or emailing to the NCDF at disaster@leo.gov.

He also recommended the public continue reporting suspected price gouging to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office by calling 877-765-8388 or reporting online at www.michigan.gov/ag.

“The scammers know we are home more and on our computers more, so they will try to take advantage,” Birge said. “But that also means residents can be a very effective ‘neighborhood watch’ for phone and on-line schemes by reporting them.”

Scams already reported include —

— Individuals and businesses selling cures, treatments or testing kits for COVID-19 that are fake;

— Robocalls offering valid COVID-19 health care products, such as masks, for sale with no intent to deliver;

— 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 computer systems for ransom;

— Solicitations for donations 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.

To find more about Department of Justice resources and information, go to www.justice.gov/coronavirus.

The Michigan Department of Treasury also advised this week that taxpayers and tax preparers be vigilant for scams aiming to divert federal stimulus checks being directly deposited into banking accounts.

In the latest round of reports, scammers are targeting taxpayers and tax preparers in an attempt to change direct deposit information so they can intercept federal checks, State Treasurer Rachael Eubanks said.

In reported cases, scammers ask taxpayers or tax preparers to verify banking information through a phone call or individuals to click on a link that goes to a fake website, where an unsuspecting victim submits personally identifiable information to a criminal.

Taxpayers or tax preparers can report attempted phishing attempts at https://www.irs.gov/privacy-disclosure/report-phishing.

The Michigan Department of Treasury does not administer the federal stimulus program or have information regarding federal stimulus checks. Questions about the federal stimulus program should be directed to the IRS at 1-800-829-1040.

In Wisconsin, the Department of Financial Institutions is alerting investors to be on guard against an anticipated surge of fraudulent investment schemes, particularly in light of the upcoming federal relief payments to eligible individuals.

In particular, DFI warned investors to be on the lookout for investments specifically tied to the threat of COVID-19. Bad actors can be expected to develop schemes that falsely purport to raise capital for companies manufacturing surgical masks and gowns, producing ventilators and other medical equipment, distributing small-molecule drugs and other preventative pharmaceuticals, or manufacturing vaccines and miracle cures.

Scammers also will seek to take advantage of concerns with the volatility in the securities markets to promote “safe” investments with “guaranteed returns” including investments tied to gold, silver and other commodities; oil and gas; and real estate. Investors also can expect to see “get rich quick” schemes that tout quickly earned guaranteed returns that can be used to pay for rent, utilities or other expenses. These schemes also target retirees and senior citizens.

For more information, go to www.wdfi.org, or call DFI’s Division of Securities at 608-266-2139.

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