Beware of COVID-19 scammers
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Missoulian editorial

Beware of COVID-19 scammers

It’s nothing short of impressive, the agility with which many entrepreneurs have adapted to the restrictions made necessary by the coronavirus pandemic. In Missoula, small retailers are making good use of online services and social media to reach customers at home. Restaurants are making use of delivery services and takeout options to continue serving their regulars’ favorite food. Countless companies are finding innovative ways to provide their products and services safely — and remotely.

Unfortunately, another group is also rapidly adapting to the new realities of COVID-19 — scam artists. These feckless folks seek to take advantage of small business owners struggling to pay their employees. They prey on desperate individuals wondering how to make ends meet after losing their jobs or seeing their hours cut back severely. And they remain as notoriously difficult to catch as ever.

Hoping to curtail some of the shameless opportunism that usually appears during times of public crisis, the state of Montana has taken some important steps. Montanans can help make these steps successful by being cautious of too-good-too-be true promises and ready to report suspected scams. Most of all, we can help protect ourselves while supporting our local employers by continuing to do as much business as possible with companies that have well-established reputations in the community.

It took no time at all for price-gouging to appear on a national scale following the first reports of coronavirus cases in the United States, attended by widespread hoarding of certain goods.

From bottles of hand sanitizer going for hundreds of dollars on Amazon to packs of toilet paper being re-sold on eBay, many suddenly hot commodities were being offered at prices far beyond their regular value — despite federal laws and company policies prohibiting such practices. Amazon, for one, has suspended thousands of accounts of sellers caught engaging in coronavirus-related price-gouging.

On March 25, a group of 33 attorneys general representing both major political parties sent letters to Amazon, Craigslist, eBay, Facebook and Walmart, urging them to do more to stop online price gouging in the midst of a global pandemic. These companies have all seen increases in online orders as consumers who are at greatest risk of contracting the virus — primarily the elderly and those with compromised immune systems — make necessary purchases from home.

Montana’s Attorney General Tim Fox was among the signers pushing these platforms to implement stronger protections.

The Montana attorney general is also charged with overseeing the state Office of Consumer Protection, and at last count, that office had received at least 17 complaints related to COVID-19, all but three of them concerning price-gouging. In response, Fox is warning consumers to watch for potential fraud, particularly concerning the federal stimulus checks that will soon be sent to taxpayers through the U.S., thanks to the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill recently passed by Congress.

While noting that scams are constantly evolving to keep ahead of law enforcement, as well as informed consumers, Fox pointed out that current iterations include “a new twist on the grandparent scam says that your loved one is in the hospital due to COVID-19 and cash needs to be sent right away. Or, a variation of the shipping package scam says ‘your delivery of masks and equipment for coronavirus’ or ‘your coronavirus prescription’ are ready. If you get one of these calls, hang up immediately,” Fox advised.

He further noted that these days, scams can come in many formats besides emails and phone calls. They might be a text, social media post or even a legitimate-looking notice mailed through the Post Office. Unless you’re sure of the sender, it’s best to ignore calls from unknown numbers, and be suspicious of any unsolicited offers. Avoid anyone who promises to get federal stimulus money to you sooner, and be aware that offers of online and “work-from-home” jobs are seldom what they seem.

Fox’s office also cautions consumers not to fall for any “vaccinations, oils, pills, potions, lotions, or lozenges that claim to prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19.” There is as yet no proven treatment for coronavirus, and a vaccine is still many months away at best. For reliable information about COVID-19, visit trusted sources like the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization, and the Montana Coronavirus Task Force.

In addition to the new stimulus money, many Montanans are also navigating the process of filing for unemployment benefits for the first time. Many businesses throughout the state have applied for a paycheck protection loan for the first time as well, and are learning more about the expanded federal program. Sadly, it’s a safe bet that scam artists will try to take advantage of that lack of experience.

At last report, the Montana Department of Labor and Industry issued more than 24,000 payments for unemployment insurance from March 29 to April 5, and received more than 22,000 new or reactivated claims during that same period.

Meanwhile, roughly 5,000 businesses in Montana have applied for the federal paycheck protection loans, and banks have issued about $500 million to help them cover up to eight weeks of payroll and overhead expenses. However, the loans come with some special considerations, including loan forgiveness so long as at least 75% of the money is used to retain employees, and the rest used to pay rent or mortgage interest.

Scam artists will use their victims’ fear to motivate them to rush into poor decisions. Fortunately, residents have a little extra time to consider their options, thanks to Gov. Steve Bullock’s directive effectively suspending any evictions, foreclosures or utility shutoffs for as long at the statewide stay-at-home order is in place.

Until that order is eventually lifted and it is safe to socialize, go to work and shop in person once more, our local businesses will need the continued support of their loyal customers more than ever. It turns out their customers need them as well, not only to provide unique goods and services and jobs, but also to help guard us from scams.

This editorial represents the views of the Missoulian Editorial Board: Publisher Jim Strauss, Editor Gwen Florio and Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen. 

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