Georgians report online scammers taking advantage of coronavirus fear

Surgical masks, hand sanitizer, disinfectants, food and toilet paper are among the most common price gouging and fraud complaints reported to the Office of the Attorney General of Georgia during the COVID-19 pandemic. The top state and federal prosecutors have formed a coronavirus fraud task force. Queven/Pixabay

Peachtree Corners’ Hyebin Eom spent $350 on protective masks last month only to find out in the ensuing days the company would not deliver the masks she hoped would keep her family and friends safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eom is among the hundreds of Georgians reporting scams and price-gouging to the Better Business Bureau and the Georgia Attorney General’s Office since about the time state officials confirmed Georgia’s first COVID-19 cases last month. So far, reports of stores and online retailers overcharging for food, toilet paper, water, hand sanitizer and protective masks are the most common complaints of the 800-plus collected by  the attorney general’s Consumer Protection Division.

In the case of the 37-year-old Eom, her initial review of medical-secure.com showed glowing reviews, but digging deeper later she found the company was likely using the public health crisis to scam people out of their money. 

“I think I made the mistake because I didn’t do enough research before buying the masks,” she said. “I think people have to research and see if they are certified or they can be tricked like me.”

This month, the state announced plans to crack down on anyone who tries to take advantage of the public health crisis when it launched a Coronavirus Fraud Task Force led by the state’s top prosecutors, including Attorney General Chris Carr, three Georgia-based U.S. Attorneys General and the Executive Counsel for the Governor’s Office. 

“Our office has received hundreds of complaints regarding scams, price gouging and other issues related to the COVID19 pandemic, and we won’t tolerate those who are taking advantage of consumers and interfering with our frontline workers’ response to the crisis,” Carr said in a statement.

By the start of this week 577 notices have been sent to businesses and people regarding complaints filed about price gouging. Many of those cases are expected to be resolved by working with online partners to remove suspicious ads, said Shawn Conroy, spokesman for the office’s Consumer Protection Division.

“It will take time for any more egregious matters to be addressed because they involve a more thorough investigative and legal process,” he said.

The number of complaints during the COVID-19 pandemic is outpacing Tropical Storm Irma’s 230 and trail behind Hurricanes Katrina and Rita when thousands of complaints rolled in primarily about high gas prices, according to Carr’s office.

It is illegal for a business to sell goods or services at a higher price than it did prior to a State of Emergency declaration unless the cost of stocking or transporting increases. Gov. Brian Kemp last week extended Georgia’s emergency order through May 13.

People are hiking prices for products in high-demand due to the disease outbreak through Amazon.com and eBay, where a bid on a four pack of Lysol disinfectant spray recently reached $128.

The BBB and consumer advocacy nonprofit Georgia Watch offer resources dedicated to helping consumers avoid COVID-19 scams and price gouging. 

And with soaring unemployment numbers, prosecutors predict an increase in schemes offering to help people get money or Social Security assistance. 

In early March, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission issued warnings about scam emails pushing treatments or cures for coronavirus to get people to invest in them. For now, the novel coronavirus is untreatable. 

Fraud is also occurring through scams common before this year’s COVID-19 outbreak, as Douglasville’s Anthony Chappell can attest.

Chappell recently received an email telling him to deposit $1,000 worth of bitcoin into an account or the scammer would tell his family he visited a pornographic website. The scammer followed that threat with a warning that his family members would be infected with the new coronavirus.

“I knew it was a spam, I’ve been in IT for almost 30 years now,” said Chappell who offers free online safety courses during the pandemic. “It didn’t scare me but to someone who doesn’t have this experience, I could see how it could freak them out.”

While the new coronavirus fraud task force investigates claims, the state is encouraging people to file a complaint if they suspect someone is trying to take advantage of them.

“Opportunistic criminals are targeting the most vulnerable among us with COVID-19 scams, but our office and law enforcement and prosecutorial partners remain vigilant,” said Bobby Christine, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia.

How to file a complaint:

The Consumer Protection Division of the Office of the Attorney General of Georgia has received more than 600 complaints of price gouging or scams related to COVID-19. To file a complaint call 1-800-869-1123 or visit consumer.ga.gov.   

You can report COVID-19 scams to the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) hotline (1-866-720-5721) or to the NCDF e-mail address [email protected].

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.