To get an idea of how fast COVID-19 scams are developing around the coronavirus, just ask Katie Conner, a spokesperson for Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich.
“It seems like every day … a new scam pops up,” said Conner, who said the attorney general’s office has been closely monitoring consumer fraud claims. “And we are really trying to stay ahead and get these warnings out there.”
But Brnovich’s office and other consumer groups said the threat of COVID-19 and the national focus on it have combined with the speed and anonymity of the internet to spread scams that have left watchdogs across the country scrambling.
“We are updating our site about every 30 minutes, working to provide tips to consumers and information to consumers as frequently as possible,” said Diane Brown, executive director of the Arizona Public Interest Research Group.
Groups say the scams themselves are not new, coming in the form of phishing emails, investment scams and supposed miracle products. What’s different, they say, is the intense focus on COVID-19 and the “creative” use of the internet to spread messages, often false, about it.
“With social media, scammers can quickly spread the news about a fake miracle cure or fake product. We have seen just about everything in the last couple weeks,” Conner said. “That’s why we really want consumers to remember there is no cure for COVID-19.”
That was echoed by Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean of public health at Johns Hopkins University, who said that sham treatment can be fatal. That was the case in Arizona, where a man died after he and his wife drank fish-tank cleaner because it contained a chemical that President Donald Trump had cited as a possible treatment.
“We have had these horrible reports of people ingesting these large quantities of different chemicals, in hopes they might protect themselves, and actually getting very sick or dying from that,” Sharfstein said.
Sharfstein and U.S. Attorney for Maryland Robert Hur said in a recent online conference that people need to “stay skeptical” and look to reputable sources for information.
“There is a lot of fraud and misleading information out there about different types of things people can do with … medicines, or supplements or vitamins to protect themselves,” Sharfstein said.
Prosecutors in Missouri recently sued televangelist Jim Bakker for promoting the sale of colloidal silver as a possible COVID-19 treatment. It came two days after the Food and Drug Administration issued cease-and-desist letters to Bakker and six other companies for selling unapproved coronavirus treatments.
Chuck Bell, programs director of Consumer Reports, believes part of the problem is that no one has the time to check claims as was done in the past.
When Trump cited hydroxychloroquine, the chemical implicated in the Arizona death as a possible treatment and later suggested that bleach might be used to defeat the disease, the comments went out live. Trump later claimed he was being sarcastic with his bleach statement, but not before the makers of Lysol issued a statement that “under no circumstance” should disinfectants be used on the body.
“There is less mediation, there’s not necessarily a doctor or a journalist that is standing between that product and the consumer,” Bell said. “In the old days … you would have a lot of reporters that would criticize a fraudulent product. But what has happened is, the sellers and retailers can go right to the consumer.”
Consumers have to bear some of the blame as well, he said.
“Consumers are very trusting,” Bell said. “We are assuming that that doctor has his own best health interests at stake. So you have to look behind it and realize there is a commercial interest.”
Brown said ArizonaPIRG is constantly updating its website in hopes of keeping consumers aware of the latest scams. But it is also working to pull together information consumers can rely on, she said.
“Arizona PIRG is also working to compile trusted resources in the state,” she said. “We may not have all the answers, but we are trying to compile them.”
She said her group is “working to provide tips for consumers and make sure that government officials are aware of false advertising or any potential illegal schemes.”
In recent weeks, the Arizona Attorney General’s office has posted notices of three potential scams, and members of the state’s congressional delegation have also posted online warnings on their websites.
Hur said the best defense for consumers is a healthy dose of skepticism.
“Please be skeptical, please be leery,” Hur said. “If you think you have a lead on some helpful information, go directly to the source. Don’t click your way through something that reports to be from Johns Hopkins, go directly to the Johns Hopkins website. There, you can be assured that you are getting accurate genuine information.”
Conner seconded that, saying that slowing the spread of misinformation can be as simple as thinking before clicking “send.”
“It is very easy for posts to share, and for people to like and comment. So that is why consumers need to keep their guard up,” she said. “If people can remember this it will be helpful – if you did not initiate the contact, it is probably a scammer.
“We need consumers to be as vigilant as possible during this very difficult time, do their research and consult with health experts and their doctors about any cures or medicines,” Conner said. “And if you have been a victim of fraud, don’t hesitate to call.”
Story by Joshua Gerard Gargiulo, Cronkite News