GREAT FALLS — The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is trying to raise awareness about pandemic scams and hosted a news conference Wednesday to discuss what was being seen in Montana and across the country.
"These scams have cost consumers almost $380 million,” said Chuck Harwood, director of the FTC Northwest Regional Office.
Harwood was frank when describing the impact of pandemic scams, saying that scammers follow the headlines.
"In the past year, they've updated their schemes repeatedly to take advantage of our pandemic needs and worries."
Among the most recent scams are people using bogus websites that look like government unemployment insurance benefits sites, and trying to trick people into thinking they’re applying for UI benefits; people claiming that they can expedite - or even increase - your federal stimulus payment; and people peddling bogus "vaccines."
Harwood was part of a group of FTC, legal, law enforcement. and organization representatives who spent about an hour and a half discussing how to spot scams, what to do if you think you've been scammed, and what's being done to combat scams.
"We've heard of some COVID-19 related (scams), like an iteration of a grandparent scam,” said Chuck Munson, an assistant attorney general in the Consumer Protection Division of the Montana Department of Justice. "I believe we've gotten reports of vaccination-related scams, like texts coming through."
While pandemic scams have been reported, he said there didn't seem to have been a lot.
Regardless, speakers -- including Billings Police detective Brett Lapham -- emphasized the importance of educating people about scams in general.
"Unfortunately, this happened in February,” Lapham said, referring to a recent scam.
He shared the story of an elderly husband and wife who went out during a snowstorm in February to withdraw money for what was later determined to be an elder scam. On the way, the couple crashed.
"Both individuals were trapped in the car and had to be extricated by the fire department. Unfortunately, her husband passed away,” Lapham said.
From the FTC website:
- Learn how to tell the difference between a real contact tracer and a scammer. Legitimate tracers need health information, not money or personal financial information.
- Don’t respond to texts, emails or calls about checks from the government. Here’s what you need to know.
- Ignore offers for vaccinations and miracle treatments or cures. Scammers are selling products to treat or prevent COVID-19 without proof that they work.
- Be wary of ads for test kits. Many test kits being advertised have not been approved by the FDA, and aren’t necessarily accurate. Almost all authorized home tests don’t provide rapid results and require you to send a test sample to a lab for analysis.
- Hang up on robocalls. Scammers are using illegal robocalls to pitch everything from low-priced health insurance to work-at-home schemes.
- Watch for emails claiming to be from the CDC or WHO. Use sites like coronavirus.gov and usa.gov/coronavirus to get the latest information. And don’t click on links from sources you don’t know.
- Do your homework when it comes to donations. Never donate in cash, by gift card, or by wiring money.