It didn’t take long after the world became fully aware of the medical threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic for another threat — of a totally different kind — to rear its own brand of ugliness.
It was on April 28 that AARP, the nation’s largest nonprofit dedicated to empowering Americans 50 and over, announced on its website that an individual had been charged with a federal crime for allegedly peddling a fake cure for the virus while promising big returns to his investors.
It’s but one of a number of virus-related scams that have come to light in recent weeks, many of them setting as their targets the most vulnerable segment of the population — unsuspecting senior citizens.
The man at the center of that particular case is an actor, Keith Middlebrook, perhaps best known for his roles in various action films including “Thor” and the “Iron Man” series.
“Middlebrook spun a web of lies and boastfully hawked a cure for the respiratory disease,” according to an affidavit from an FBI special agent. Middlebrook allegedly promised his targets that for an investment of $300,000, he could guarantee a return of $30 million, claiming he had developed a serum that would cure a person within 24 hours and a pill that would prevent contracting the virus.
After Middlebrook was charged, Nick Hanna, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, said in a statement, “During these difficult days, scams like this are using blatant lies to prey upon our fears and weaknesses.”
While Middlebrook was courting upscale clientele with deep pockets, others of his ilk have been preying upon ordinary citizens.
“Scammers have taken advantage of the pandemic and developed new hoaxes that prey on fears of the virus,” a statement on the Visiting Angels Living Assistance Services website says. “Older adults — especially those who are experiencing cognitive decline and are isolated from loved ones due to social distancing — are at higher risk for falling victim.”
According to the site, one scam that targets older adults involves the attempted sale of home test kits. Scammers call or text the intended victim in an effort to collect credit card or banking information. They often pose as officials from U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and ask the seniors to verify their Medicare or Social Security numbers.
A related scam involves efforts to sell bogus products and services, among them fake drugs, vaccines and devices that claim to prevent or cure COVID-19.
The site indicates that some scammers also claim to belong to a government agency, such as the Social Security Administration. A common line has them informing seniors that their benefits will be suspended or decreased due to COVID-19 unless they provide payment or personal information.
Insurance scams are also common, according to Visiting Angels. They may involve offers of low-cost health and life insurance, often in conjunction with at-home COVID-19 tests or other products presented as “free gifts.”
“Fake Corona virus health coverage and other insurance schemes are beginning to surface as scammers continue exploiting the pandemic for personal profit,” warned the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud as early as March 24.
According to CAIF, robocalls, along with text and email phishing attacks, can pitch false insurance deals, sometimes asking consumers to pay insurance premiums without delivering any coverage. The coalition warns against offers of low-cost corona insurance. It says to beware of bogus calls warning you that your health insurance was canceled.
It also cautions that scammers peddle fake vaccines, drugs and “all-natural” or “organic” medicines, claiming they are insured and paid for by your health policy.
In addition, it warns against offers of free virus tests at senior centers, health fairs or in your home, as well as pitches for travel insurance that claim to cover coronavirus-related trip cancellations.
Stimulus-related scams are another trick sometimes played on unsuspecting victims, who, according to Visiting Angels, are asked to provide bank information so funds can be “released” or loan applications can be approved.
And then there are charity scams, which prey on the good nature of many older adults by aiming to collect money for bogus COVID-19 relief efforts.
To combat those and other schemes, the Federal Communications Commission recommends that no one should answer telephone calls or respond to text messages from unknown or suspicious numbers. The agency reminds the public to not share personal information by telephone, email or text.
The FCC suggests you should be suspicious if pressured to make immediate payment or to share information. And it cautions to refrain from clicking on suspicious links.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources cautions against scammers pretending to be COVID-19 contact tracers, individuals hired to identify people who have come in contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus.
Along those lines, the Federal Trade Commission indicates that scammers are sending spam text messages that ask an individual to click on a link, unlike legitimate text messages from a health department that may only want to let you know someone will be calling.
“Don’t take the bait,” the FTC warns, explaining that clicking on the link will download software into a person’s device, giving access to personal and financial information.
“Ignore and delete those scam messages,” it says.
Bayside resident Helen Elaine offers similar advice to her fellow seniors: “I don’t answer the landline. Be careful of calls about helping with Medicare plans. Most likely it’s a scam to get your information. I check the phone number on the computer if I’m not sure.”
The IRS.gov site indicated early in June that there were already a variety of Economic Impact Payment scams.
Criminals are continuing to use the COVID-19 Economic Impact Payment as cover for schemers to steal personal information and money, the site cautions.
As the pandemic continues to rage, the U.S. Department of Justice suggests that “criminals will likely continue to use new methods to exploit COVID-19 worldwide.”
FTC tips to avoid coronavirus scams
• Don’t respond to texts, emails or calls about checks from the government.
• Ignore offers for vaccinations and home test kits. Scammers are selling products to treat or prevent COVID-19 without proof that they work.
• Be wary of ads for test kits. Most test kits being advertised have not been approved by the FDA, and aren’t necessarily accurate.
• Hang up on robocalls. Scammers are using illegal robocalls to pitch everything from low-priced health insurance to work-at-home schemes.
• Do your homework when it comes to donations. Never donate in cash, by gift card or by wiring money.