By Marion Filler
The pandemic may have brought out the best in us. But it also has a flip side.
Unscrupulous characters have come out of the woodwork to exploit confusion and fear. Beware these scammers, hoarders, counterfeiters, and even some medical providers and pharmacies. They are in high gear and ready to zap you if they can.
How can we protect ourselves? During a virtual town hall on Tuesday, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal focused on the many guises of fraud with a panel of experts who understand the game very well.
Chris Gramiccioni, the Monmouth County prosecutor, knows the elderly are a major target for scammers. Why? They have the means, they are more trusting, and they generally have limited tech skills.
The “grandparent scheme” has proven devastatingly successful. A young person will call and say, “Grandma, it’s me.” Grandma likely asks: “Is that you, Johnny?” The caller now has established himself and proceeds with a request for money. Grandma rushes to comply, and the deed is done by credit card, gift card, or bank transfer.
It did not take long for these scammers to come up with a COVID twist, asking for assistance to get them through self-quarantine, said Paul Rodriguez, acting director of the state Division of Consumer Affairs.
New Jersey is lucky to have a price-gouging law that makes it illegal to raise the price of goods more than 10 percent during a declared state of emergency, Rodriguez said.
He has seen a rise in PPE pricing for hospital use, and also among retailers who have jacked up prices in response to increased demand.
“We’re seeing opportunists across the board,” Rodriguez said. He cited fake COVID-19 tests, home-mixed chemicals sold as disinfectants, false treatments and cures for the virus, and non-existent charities asking for money.
His agency has investigators and inspectors at its disposal and the ability to issue subpoenas. They share complaints and all other information with prosecutors and law enforcement officials at community, state and federal levels.
State Attorney Gurbir Grewal and Monmouth Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni discuss COVID scams during virtual town hall, May 19, 2020. Video by Marion Filler for Morristown Green:
Craig Carpenito, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey and the top federal law enforcement official in the state, described COVID fraud as a nationwide problem. Common sense is your best weapon, he advised.
“Be on guard. Not everyone is here to help,” Carpenito said.
He and his team have offices in all 50 states and were involved in detecting black market distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) purchased from foreign countries and brought in through port cities on the east and west coasts.
Some items were marked up as much as 700 percent, so a normal $300,000 purchase now was costing $2.6 million. And the goods — especially the masks — were of poor quality, Carpenito said.
Tracy Thompson is the acting insurance fraud prosecutor for New Jersey. She described vaccine schemes where a pharmacy may set up a tent for COVID-19 testing with counterfeit test kits.
If you pay with a credit card or Medicare/Medicaid number, the fraudsters have your information– and maybe your money. Another scam used by pharmacies is to bill in advance when filling prescriptions. If the patient never picks up, they do not cancel the charge to the insurance company, and simply return the medication to the shelves.
Be cognizant of billing for medical services. “Your insurance company is your first line of defense. Take notes and compare charges to the Explanation of Benefits (E.O.B) issued by Medicare/Medicaid, Thompson said.
“We also anticipate an uptick in telehealth charges, in workers compensation claims, and even life insurance claims for fake deaths,” said Thompson. She suggested keeping a record of telehealth conferences, and if possible, have a witness on hand who can keep track of the time.
A general word of advice for avoiding telephone scams: Don’t answer calls from unfamiliar numbers.
“Let them leave a message,” Thompson said.
Sure-fire investment scams never go out of style, and neither does phishing, Gramiccioni said. A caller will request personal information on behalf of a government entity such as the I.R.S. or the F.B.I.
You might be asked for your date of birth, Social Security number, checking account information, passwords, or a credit card number. All of it is useful to steal your identity. Be aware that no government agency ever will request this information on the telephone or on the internet.
Gramiccioni also warned about disclosing your age on Facebook, because that information can be used as the first part of a three-part identification process.
“Make yourself into a hard target,” ask a lot of questions, and make it difficult for scammers to steal your information, he advised.
Carpenito said law enforcement is using undercover agents, informants and wiretaps to chase down COVID fraudsters.
Information-sharing among partners is the key, and complaints from the public are vital.
“We have a national hotline where we filter the complaints and cross-reference them to find the worst offenders,” said Carpenito. “There is no possibility that a complaint will fall through the cracks. Every single one is being looked at.”
The National Center for Disaster Fraud at 1-866-720-5721.
“Now is the time to ask more questions, look at everything with a more suspect eye, because fear is one of the richest petri dishes for the disease of fraud,” Carpenito said.
One of his best tools, he said, is to “name and shame those involved in the most un-American conduct I’ve known in my lifetime.”