Fake tests, fantasy cures and false government aid checks: Authorities warn scammers are ramping up as coronavirus spreads
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Fake tests, fantasy cures and false government aid checks: Authorities warn scammers are ramping up as coronavirus spreads

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US Attorney Lausch (copy)

John R. Lausch Jr., the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, speaks during a press conference in Chicago in January 2018. He says scam artists are seeking to profit from the coronavirus pandemic. 

CHICAGO — As COVID-19 travels the world, scam artists are close behind.

They’re hawking bogus cures, and authorities at O’Hare International Airport have already seized a delivery of counterfeit tests. They’re blasting out text messages falsely claiming that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is inviting people to collect $1,000 from an aid program that doesn’t yet exist. They’re luring people to dodgy websites with ads promising $100 Starbucks gift cards as an apology for closing shops.

Along with the viral pandemic, people are facing what the World Health Organization called an “infodemic” — a deluge of information, some of it nonsense. That’s an ideal environment for scammers who exploit fears and needs, and federal prosecutors have vowed to make battling coronavirus-related fraud a priority.

U.S. Attorney John Lausch, the ranking federal prosecutor in northern Illinois, warned consumers to be mindful.

“If a vaccine becomes approved, you’re not going to hear about it for the first time through an email or an online ad," he told the Tribune. "We are very concerned. There are a whole host of cybercriminals attempting to take advantage of this crisis.”

Far from a new development, scams have been a reliable byproduct of disasters as people search for ways to protect themselves, make a fast buck or help victims.

Hurricanes have given rise to insurance scams and fake charities.

During the financial crisis of the late 2000s, fraudsters engineered foreclosure rescue schemes in which people paid for help saving their homes that never materialized.

Nearly two decades after the World Trade Center attacks, the Federal Trade Commission warned of people disguising, or “spoofing,” their phone numbers to pose as representatives of the 9/11 victim compensation fund and ask for Social Security and bank account numbers.

But the pandemic — a still-developing global health crisis paired with potentially severe economic suffering — could birth a “record-breaking” volume of scams, said Steve Bernas, president and CEO of the nonprofit Chicago Better Business Bureau. He noted that broader internet access and ubiquitous cellphones have given swindlers a line on more targets than they had before.

“This is going to be a scammer’s paradise right now in the next few weeks,” Bernas said. “Everybody is going to be affected in some way and the scammers are going to bank on that for years to come."

The number of reported coronavirus cases had just started to rise in Illinois last week when U.S. Customs and Border Control Agents at O’Hare International Airport seized a delivery of counterfeit test kits.

Then, on Sunday, federal prosecutors in Texas obtained a court order shutting down coronavirusmedicalkit.com, a website that claimed the World Health Organization was offering free tests people could get by paying $4.95 for shipping, according to court records. The site used a picture of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has emerged as a trusted authority during the crisis, to lend credence to its offer, authorities alleged.

Allegedly bogus cures also are popping up. Earlier this month, New York Attorney General Letitia James ordered prominent radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to stop marketing toothpaste and other products as coronavirus cures in her state.

In addition to fake cures and tests, law enforcement and consumer protection officials said they expected lots of “phishing,” the use of emails or text messages to try to steal personal information or access bank accounts.

FBI Supervisory Special Agent Brad Cadard, who oversees cybercrime investigations in Chicago, said that phishing messages may look like they’re from a reputable institution such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization. He noted that email chains cost little for scammers to set up and are designed to get readers to click on links that lead to malware, ransomware or other malicious material.

“There are unique things that people are interested in that bad actors and fraudsters are using to their advantage,” Cadard said. “It doesn’t take much to set up. … It’s a low cost for them and high reward.”

Cadard said the topics that scammers will use to entice a victim to click run the gamut, from offers for masks and ventilators to phony updates about economic stimulus checks.

Cadard said to watch out in particular for any links to supposedly government-run sites that don’t end with the .gov domain. An unsolicited email that asks for personal information such as date of birth is likely a scam, he said.

Lausch also warned about robocalls that purport to come from government agencies.

“Your antenna should be way, way up right there,” he said. “Legitimate health authorities are not going to be contacting people in this way.”

Similarly, the Federal Communications Commission has warned against robocalls offering air duct cleaning services as a way to stop the coronavirus, which the agency described as a phone scam.

One such robocall went to David Musial, CEO of Four Seasons Heating and Air Conditioning, a Chicago company that cleans air ducts. Musial said those services should not be advertised as a COVID-19 stopper, and he reported the call to the BBB, where he sits on the board.

"There’s enough stress right now for all of us,” he said. "I cant believe what people will stoop to.”

While authorities are watching for outright criminal acts, they also are responsible for monitoring legitimate businesses that are exploiting the crisis by gouging consumers.

WATCH: Officials announce 250 new cases of COVID-19 in Illinois

As of Monday, Chicago and state officials had taken more than 700 complaints accusing retailers of gouging customers for coronavirus-related items such as hand sanitizer and toilet paper.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul said his attorneys had yet to go to court seek any cease-and-desist orders as a result of the complaints. Some retailers have voluntarily lowered prices after being contacted by the office, he said.

“It is really important for people to understand that there are going to be some instances of increased prices that may feel like it’s price gouging but it may be reflecting increased costs,” said Raoul, who encouraged people to report suspected price gouging or other unfair business practices here.

Meanwhile, anybody who believes they’ve been a victim of a scam or has information about suspected fraud can call 866-720-5721, or email disaster@leo.gov. Those are the contacts for the National Center for Disaster Fraud, which was established in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“We ask the public to be our eyes and ears if you suspect someone is committing fraud," said Kathleen Wylie, the center’s director. “We are taking calls now.”

Chicago Tribune’s David Jackson contributed to this report.


WEDNESDAY UPDATE 

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