With COVID-19 scams on the rise, officials say beware

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

The inevitable byproduct of any crisis is the unscrupulous individuals trying to take advantage of it by scamming the most vulnerable, and the current pandemic is no exception. The state’s Attorney General’s Office is reporting an increase in scams of individuals and organizations hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis. The state’s Office of Consumer Protection says, as always, be wary.

Acting director Paul Rodriguez says some of the more popular scams surround the so-called stimulus checks.

“The important thing for viewers to know is that the stimulus checks are going to be sent to people automatically. People will not be reaching out. They don’t have to provide information to the government and, in particular, they will not have to provide information to someone who reaches out to them. So the only people who really have to reach out to the government to get a stimulus check are people who have not filed their taxes in the last couple of years. They can go directly to the IRS site and give them their information,” Rodriguez said.

And that’s Anything else is very likely a scam. And it’s not just someone calling you at home — it can be emails or texts with links to fake web sites.

Rodriguez says popular scams include the old “I’m a long-lost relative and I need money for medical bills” or “I’m quarantined and need help with rent or food.” Other scams target small businesses offering help on SBA loan applications if you give up your social security number.

“If someone is trying to pressure you into turning over information or turning over money, immediately that’s a huge red flag. Just take a step back. Talk to someone you trust. Go to a trusted information source. Don’t just reflexively give out information because you want them to go away,” Rodriguez said.

Monmouth County Assemblywoman Joann Downey says she has seen scammers targeting the medical community with fake medication and substandard personal protective equipment. She’s moving a bill through the Assembly that would hit back — harder.

“We want to make sure that, no matter how many of the units or containers you sell, it’s going to a second degree crime. And that is punishable by up to five to 10 years in prison, $150,000 fine or both. So we’re serious and we want to make sure that people know do not try to do this because you will be punished,” she said.

So, scammers beware. Lawmakers and law enforcement are on to you. But consumers — and any of us who just want to help — also beware. If you’re feeling pressure to share information or give up some cash, pause, and go directly to the source.

The Consumer Affairs Division of the Attorney General’s Office has a hotline to report suspicious solicitations: (866) 720-5721.