PHOENIX (3TV/CBS5) -- Arizona state officials are launching a new task force aimed at combating fraud related to the coronavirus crisis. Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich and U.S. Attorney Michael Bailey announced the task force on Wednesday. It's a joint effort among federal, state and local officials to protect Arizonans from con artists who are targeting folks who might be feeling vulnerable right now.
The "COVID-19 Fraud Task Force" will bring together a dozen partners to combine resources and information to better investigate and prosecute those who are trying to profit from the current health crisis. The mission of the Task Force is to streamline the government’s response to reports of fraud related to COVID-19 in Arizona. Members of the task force will work together and share information to make sure all scams are investigated, all wrongdoers are prosecuted, and all Arizonans are protected.
"It’s not surprising con artists are taking advantage of headlines and exploiting COVID-19 concerns and anxieties of consumers," said Attorney General Mark Brnovich. "The Attorney General’s Office is here to serve Arizonans and is working around the clock to combat fraud, but we can't do it alone. The launch of this new COVID-19 Task Force with our federal and local partners will maximize our resources and help ensure we are prepared to combat new and evolving consumer threats."
Joseph Sciarrotta, Civil Division Chief for the Attorney General’s Office, and Assistant United States Attorney Jim Knapp, recently appointed as the United States Attorney’s Office COVID-19 Fraud Coordinator, are leading the Arizona COVID-19 Fraud Task Force.
Other members of the task force include:
- The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office
- The Federal Bureau of Investigation
- The Food and Drug Administration
- The Internal Revenue Service Investigation Division
- Health and Human Services
- The United States Postal Inspection Service
- The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration
- The United States Secret Service
- The United States Army Criminal Investigation Division
- The Defense Criminal Investigative Services.
“In times of crisis, the best of humanity is often evident as people support one another and unite together to fight a common enemy. We see that in today’s stories about our health care workers, our first responders, and our communities sacrificing safety and comfort to protect one another,” said U.S. Attorney Michael Bailey. “Unfortunately crisis can also be a time when the worst parts of humanity surface. This Task Force will seek out and punish scam artists who prey on the fear and uncertainty of our citizens during this public health crisis.”
"The FBI is proud to be a member of Arizona's COVID-19 Fraud Task Force," said Sean Kaul, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Phoenix Field Office. "We are committed to aggressively pursuing bad actors who are utilizing the COVID-19 pandemic to commit cyber, financial, and healthcare fraud, including withholding critical supplies from our citizens, healthcare workers, and first responders."
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In recent weeks, stories of fraud related to the coronavirus have increased across the nation. During this time of uncertainty, consumers are often more vulnerable to fraud as they seek answers and a sense of security. Fake texts, emails, and social media posts that might normally be ignored may now be enticing if they offer COVID-19 tests, miracle cures, medical products, or money, says the AG's office.
On April 6, the Federal Trade Commission reported that it had received almost 12,000 consumer complaints related to COVID-19 in just three months. Well over half of those complaints were fraud-related, with a total loss to consumers of $8.39 million.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich says a Chandler company has been advertising merchandise in a manner that deceptively implies it could provide immunity from COVID-19.
The Arizona Attorney General’s Office has also experienced a spike in COVID-19-related consumer fraud complaints. The office already sent cease-and-desist letters to local businesses (YiLo Superstore Dispensary and Prepper’s Discount) that were offering COVID-19-related products that allegedly violate the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act.
The Arizona Attorney General's Office (AGO) has ordered Phoenix business to stop touting one of its products as a "treatment or cure for COVID-19."
To help keep Arizonans informed about the latest scams and to provide tips to consumers, the Attorney General's Office recently launched a COVID-19 scam information page.
Attorney General Brnovich and United States Attorney Bailey offer the following consumer tips to protect against COVID-19 fraud:
- Do not respond to texts, emails, or calls requesting your personal information in exchange for a COVID-19 stimulus check. If you receive one of these requests, immediately report it to the hotline. COVID-19 economic impact checks will be delivered based on 2018 or 2019 tax return information, so no action is required for most people.
- Ignore offers for a COVID-19 vaccine, cure, or treatment. Remember, if there is a medical breakthrough, you won’t hear about it for the first time through an email, online ad, or unsolicited sales pitch.
- Research any charities or crowdfunding sites soliciting donations in connection with COVID-19 before giving. An organization may not be legitimate even if it uses words like “CDC” or “government” in its name.
- Be cautious of purchasing personal protective equipment (PPE) from unknown third-party vendors. Verify that the company is legitimate before ordering their products or sending money.
- Never click on a link or open an email attachment from an unknown or unverified source. Links and attachments may be embedded with a virus that will infect your computer or mobile device. To better protect yourself against malware, make sure your anti-virus software is operating and up-to-date.
- Do not be convinced by sales pitches for COVID-19 tests that promise to give results in as little as 24 hours. If an effective, quick-results test becomes widely available, you will find out through news sources and government reporting, not a sales pitch.
If you believe you have been a target of a coronavirus-related scam, or know someone else who has been, please report the fraud. Reports can be made to the Task Force at:
• National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline: 1-800-720-5721 or firstname.lastname@example.org
• Arizona Attorney General’s Office: www.AZAG.gov/complaints/consumer
• FBI’s IC3 (for internet-related scams): www.IC3.gov