The current coronavirus pandemic has led to a long list of recommendations that everyone should be doing their best to follow. Among other steps, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people stay home if they can, wash their hands frequently, cover their coughs and sneezes, try to stay at least six feet away from others, and most recently, wear a cloth face covering over your mouth and nose when in public.
We’d like to make an additional recommendation about something that isn’t in the CDC’s purview: Don’t be a jerk.
For all the inspiring stories of Mainers helping each other weather these uncertain times, there have also been reports of scammers, hackers, price gougers and other individuals looking to take advantage of the current upheaval rather than help address it.
Last week, for example, the Bath City Council had to end its first online meeting via the teleconferencing platform Zoom because someone interrupted it with profanity and pornography. This disturbing technique of derailing video conference meetings is somehow taking root across the country.
Videoconferencing has helped enable remote working while businesses confront massive economic strain, continue student learning while schools are physically closed, and provide an outlet for human interaction while people are otherwise distanced from one another. To try to safeguard against these new threats and disruptions, sometimes called “zoom-bombing,” the Federal Bureau of Investigation has urged organizers not to make meetings or classrooms public and to take steps to control who has access to meeting information.
It’s not only newer technologies that people are looking to exploit in this time of crisis. On Saturday, Sen. Susan Collins warned that criminals are contacting people and falsely telling people that they need to pay a fee in order to access small business loans through the newly created Paycheck Protection Program. There is no application fee for this federal loan program.
“This scam is another reminder of how ruthless criminals are in seeking to steal from hardworking Americans during a time of economic hardship,” Collins said in a statement, while encouraging Maine people who receive such a call to hang up immediately and report it to the fraud hotline operated by the Senate Aging Committee, which she chairs.
In March, Collins also warned seniors about a scam in which criminals pretend to be calling from a U.S. public health agency and say immediate credit card payment is needed in order to access a coronavirus vaccine — which currently does not exist. Collins stressed that the government would never demand advance payment for a vaccine over the phone.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr has directed federal prosecutors to prioritize investigating and prosecuting criminal conduct related to the coronavirus pandemic. Maine’s U.S. Attorney Halsey B. Frank appointed Portland-based Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel J. Perry to serve as the COVID-19 Fraud Coordinator.
“Criminals are already taking advantage of the anxiety caused by the coronavirus outbreak to peddle fake cures, send phishing emails from entities posing as the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and install malware on apps designed to track the virus,” Frank said at the time. “This type of fraudulent activity is appalling.”
On March 31, the Federal Trade Commission reported a surge in coronavirus-related consumer complaints, with the top categories for fraud complaints including travel and vacation cancelations and refunds, problems with online shopping, mobile texting scams, and imposter scams where people pretend to be government or business representatives. In addition to taking consumer complaints, the FTC website has information about coronavirus-related scams.
Superintendent of the Maine Bureau of Financial Institutions Lloyd LaFountain told News Center Maine that there will likely be scamming attempts related to the direct payments most Americans are set to receive as part of the federal economic relief package passed in late March.
“Unfortunately, scammers will very likely try to exploit the program to engage in ID theft and to defraud innocent people of their payments. Everyone is reminded to remain vigilant during the current crisis and be wary of any requests for personal information,” LaFountain said.
Gov. Janet Mills signed an executive order in mid March seeking to protect Maine people from price gouging during the coronavirus, with an emphasis on products in high demand like cleaning supplies, toilet paper, medical supplies, food and water.
“The coronavirus is already making life difficult enough without bad actors trying to take advantage of Maine people by inflating prices for critical items,” Mills said.
The same can be said about scammers, hackers and anyone else looking to profit from the confusion, fear and misfortune of others during this pandemic. Everyone works through hardship and stress differently, and we all have different capacities to help others right now. But hopefully kindness and compassion will win out over dangerous opportunism and deceit.