Do Not Get COVID Scammed
By Dianne Anderson
Tricks and cheats are coming out in droves, luring the community into some of the same old schemes, along with some new COVID 19 scammers that promise health, wealth and jobs.
Local legal advocates and agency leaders are warning people to avoid getting ripped off with deals that sound too good to be true.
Among the numerous scams, impostors claiming to be the IRS are calling, emailing or texting, offering consumers help to get a stimulus check. The Federal Trade Commission is telling consumers to hang up on the call, that the IRS never sends messages in emails, texts or hyperlinks.
Often, scams hit the lower-income community the hardest, including susceptible communities of color, and the elderly. Every day people are falling for fake products across the spectrum of health and shopping.
So far, the FTC reports about 206,000 pandemic-related consumer problems since the top of the year.
“That’s what keeps me up at night. At a time when people are experiencing income insecurity, nobody can afford to lose any money. And yet, the data we have shows that people are reporting losing more than $146 million on COVID and stimulus-related problems,” said Monica Vaca, associate director for the Division of Consumer Response and Operations in the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
In the Inland Empire, online shopping tops the list of scams. Other reports include pandemic-related safety items, some ordered by first responders that were never delivered, such as protective equipment, face masks, hand sanitizer.
The FTC also looked at popular income and employment scams targeting younger consumers. Those who send money to get a job could end up with their bank account wiped out. Students are cautioned to not click on links in an email or texts that look like offers from college career centers.
“This one particularly concerns me, these con artists are preying on people who are already down. We’re seeing a lot of reports about phony job offers, where you’re pitched a job as a mystery shopper or a clerk, or [car rack scams.],” said Vaca, in the recent online conference that was hosted by the FTC and Ethnic Media Services.
Maricela Segura, FTC Regional Director, Western Region Los Angeles, talked about fake health treatments and tests. The agency has sent warning letters for sellers to stop making false COVID cure claims.
Some scammers are impersonating contact tracers to extract personal information over the phone, claiming to help those who are behind on mortgages. Upfront fees to address debt relief are illegal under FTC rules, she stressed.
“We’ve seen scammers pretend to be the federal government, to assist people to get out of debt, [they] ask people to pay money to get a stimulus check. No one should pay money to get a check,” Segura said.
Housing protection is a big concern for Nick Akers, senior assistant Attorney General in charge of the Consumer Law Section of the California Department of Justice.
Struggling tenants are protected under the bill, AB 3088, from most evictions stemming from COVID related financial distress until October 5. Additional protections also call for only paying 25% of the total rent owed by January 31, 2021.
The problem, he emphasized, is that many people have a hard time understanding the confusing rules. He recommends impacted tenants contact their local Legal Aid organizations for advice on rights and protections.
“Equally important, look out for scams. We know there are predators out there who will make false promises that they will help you with your landlord or rent in exchange for money upfront. That’s not the help you need,” he said.
W.J. Murdoch with the FBI also sounded the alarm that texts and email alerts that look very legitimate. He said don’t click on text or email links, even if a company looks familiar. It could be a bad phish.
Phishing is one way that consumers are scammed.
“Just don’t touch on a hyperlink that comes your way,” he said.
Former Assemblymember Cheryl Brown spoke of a local man who fell victim to a scam through the state’s PACE program. Proper permits were not pulled by the contractor, leaving the homeowner in the lurch with a leaky dangerous roof. He is finally getting some help.
Greg Armstrong, Esq., Consumer Practice Group Director of Inland Counties Legal Services, Inc., said although PACE is legal, it has opened the door to many scams.
Armstrong handles PACE related litigation. The energy efficiency program was created by the state, offering solar and other products, such as insulation, is administered under a public improvement bond.
But he said there is a lot of fraud with the elderly, and consumers do not understand the cost of the product that is placed on their property as a tax lien.
“Under the law, it’s not just a regular tax lien. It’s given super priority above your mortgage, which means they can foreclose on your property for failure to pay the taxes before the mortgage company can foreclose on your property,” he said.
Because mortgage companies do not like priority liens, he said they place it in escrow.
“Now, your mortgage payment skyrockets. You can’t pay the mortgage and the mortgage company forecloses on your property,” he said.
Rev. Tracey Johnson of Murph Chapel-St. Paul AME Church in Valinda said most of his members are seniors, and he hears a lot of the scams that they experience. He’s telling his congregation to be vigilant on scammer calls.
“One of the huge scams is that people from other countries contact our elderly and tell them that they have a relative hostage, and they need to send money in order for them to release their family member,” he said.
Because the elderly don’t know what to do, he said some have considered sending the money without first trying to contact family members to confirm the information.
Scammers try to keep victims on the phone as long as possible to get more information about them. He said the community can strengthen each other in education so they will not continue to fall victim.
“Somehow they [scammers] get lucky with a name, and the longer they stay on to listen, they can give more false truths that will lure the elderly that will do something that will be detrimental for their bank account and for their health,” he said.
Locally, last week the San Bernardino County Auditor-Controller/Treasurer/Tax Collector, issued its warning about a fraudulent Notice of Intent to Levy Social Security Benefits issued by “J.S. Brown.”
In part, the scam alert states, “This letter serves as a final judgmental notice. The Federal Tax Authorities can now take enforcement action such as seizing Social Security benefits and garnishing wages and bank accounts to satisfy the outstanding debt owed.”
“Taxpayers are unfortunately subject to scam artists every year who claim county, state and federal tax agencies have fake liens against them,” warned ATC Mason in a statement. “My office looks proactively for scammers attempting to commit fraud and abuse against San Bernardino County taxpayers, many of whom are elderly and have substantial assets. We blow the whistle on these criminals, and work with law enforcement to put them behind bars where they belong.”
The county is asking if anyone receives the notice to not call the number on that letter, but call the Tax Collector’s Office at (909) 387-8308.
Taxpayers that have been victimized by the scam are encouraged to report the crime to their local police department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation at (310) 477-6565.
For more resources, and to avoid scams, see:
Other popular scams include Social Security checks.
For more information, see https://faq.ssa.gov/en-us/Topic/article/KA-10018
To file a report about a scam, see
See the latest scams at FTC at https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/scam-alerts
For more information on PACE program protections, see https://www.inlandlegal.org/
For information on Tenant Protections, see https://www.gov.ca.gov/2020/08/31/governor-newsom-signs-statewide-covid-19-tenant-and-landlord-protection-legislation/