Pols raise concerns about consumer fraud
by Benjamin Fang
May 13, 2020 | 609 views | 0 0 comments | 41 41 recommendations | email to a friend | print
To raise awareness about the growing issue of consumer fraud and scams during the COVID-19 pandemic, Attorney General Letitia James hosted a virtual town hall last Thursday with local elected officials to discuss the problems and offer solutions.

According to James, the state attorney general’s office has issued more than 1,400 cease-and-desist orders to businesses for price gouging on essential goods.

At the beginning of the crisis, businesses were raising prices on protective products like hand sanitizers and masks. Now, James said, their office is seeing price gouging on food, like eggs and meat. She said it may be related to meatpacking companies shutting down.

“We are investigating the supply chain,” James said. “We’ve received a significant number of complaints.”

The AG’s office has also demanded that Google, Facebook and Ebay remove items that are falsely marketed as cures or treatments to the novel coronavirus. She reminded community members that there is no cure, treatment or home test for the disease yet.

“If anyone tells you otherwise, they are scamming you,” she said. “What they are seeking to do is take advantage of the heightened anxiety we’re seeing throughout the state.”

Other scams are targeting older New Yorkers, James said. Perpetrators are calling and pretending to be their grandchildren and asking for cash to pay off a hospital bill.

On the city level, the Department of Worker and Consumer Protection (DWCP) has received more than 9,000 complaints about the practice. The agency has issued over 4,400 violations and initiated seven lawsuits against repeat offenders.

DWCP Commissioner Lorelei Salas said when the agency shows up, businesses tend to stop the practice.

“That is really the goal,” she said. “We want to make sure consumers have access to these products they badly need.”

But in cases where there are repeat offenders, Salas said, DWCP goes to court to send a message that the behavior will not be tolerated in the city.

Local elected officials said they’re hearing stories on the ground about grifters who are targeting the most vulnerable populations. Councilman Francisco Moya said some of his staff members have even received phishing attacks via email.

“Nobody’s immune to this,” he said. “Now more than ever during this COVID-19, when people are looking for monetary relief, they’re getting craftier in the way they go after our community.”

State Senator Jessica Ramos said the immigrant community is particularly susceptible to many of these scams and discriminatory practices.

“Having this information at our fingertips is really important,” she said.

Councilman Daniel Dromm noted that unscrupulous attorneys are already trying to take advantage of immigrant communities, especially those who are undocumented. He also raised concerns about charity scams that are advertising fundraising efforts, even though they do not actually exist.

Another trick is the airline scam, where fraudsters ask people for their bank account information to refund cancelled trips, according to District Attorney Melinda Katz.

She has also heard of a fraud related to stimulus checks, where scammers ask people for their bank accounts to quicken the stimulus process.

“There are really unscrupulous people out there who exploit a crisis,” said Acting Borough President Sharon Lee, “those who have the audacity to capitalize on life and death.”

Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz said many WhatsApp and Facebook groups are promoting fake “cards” that ask users for all sorts of personal information. She has also seen people go door-to-door selling fake COVID-19 tests.

“If you didn’t get that information from a trusted agency, a trusted source or some other form of government entity, you should not give out your information,” Cruz said. “It’s not a legitimate way to provide help.”
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