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November 30, 2020

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AG: Scammers, price gougers exploiting coronavirus crisis in NC

APRIL 2, 2020, BY IMARI SCARBROUGH

Carolina Public Press

North Carolina residents should keep a watchful eye out for coronavirus-related scams and price gouging, according to the office N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein. “Our office has received reports of scammers going door to door in neighborhoods selling coronavirus testing kits and cleaning supplies,” announced a recent consumer alert from Stein’s office. “This activity could be both a scam and a pretense to enter your home, possibly to commit robbery or other criminal acts.” Laura Brewer, communications director for the N.C. Department of Justice, said that Stein’s office has already received many complaints.

On Monday morning, Brewer reported that as of the end of the day Friday, Stein’s office had received 561 complaints about price gouging. “We have also received three formal complaints about scams and are actively working with partner organizations to share information about scams about which they’ve been notified,” Brewer said. “Doing so helps to let North Carolinians know what to look out for and can prevent scams.”

Brewer shared examples of various scams.

In one, a text directs the recipient to click on a link to get the N95 masks that health care workers around the country have been desperately seeking to reduce their risk of catching or transmitting COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Another example of a scam text message begins with “Good evening, Honey” and tries to entice the reader with a “$0 deductible, $0 copay” insurance plan due to COVID-19.

“We’ve also seen a number of scams around miracle cures and PPE,” Brewer said this week, referring to personal protective equipment.

As examples, she provided screen grabs that complainants have shared with the Department of Justice, including the insurance scam, a “face masks back in stock” scam and a “steps you can take to avoid the scams.

In addition to scams, price gouging has posed a problem. Many items, including N95 masks, have increased significantly in price during the pandemic.

“Attorney General Josh Stein today announced that he is working with Amazon to investigate nine North Carolina businesses and sellers over price gouging concerns,” the N.C. Department of Justice announced Friday.

“Attorney General Stein was notified by Amazon that these sellers had raised prices dramatically for items that have been in high demand during the coronavirus pandemic, including hand sanitizer and N95 masks,”

While some alleged price gougers are operating across state lines, some are in North Carolina.

“Amazon identified these North Carolina-based sellers having raised prices on coronavirus-related products more than 40% between Feb. 10 and March 16, 2020, and as a group having generated more than $100,000 in sales as a result of those higher prices,” according to Department of Justice.

The complaints have come from across the state and out of state but tend to come from the largest urban counties, Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford and Forsyth.  An outlier was mostly rural Robeson County, which has generated more complaints than several more populous counties. Complaints about specific vendors in Robeson County have also been unusually high. Most of the complaints there have been about absurdly high prices for cleaning products and groceries, which are among the most reported items being price-gouged statewide.

The most frequently price-gouged individual items, based on the complaints DOJ has received, have been toilet paper, food items, disinfectant, gasoline, face masks and hand sanitizer.

The scourge of robocalls from scammers

The Federal Trade Commission has also warned about coronavirus scams using phones across the United States.

“Hang up on robocalls,” the FTC advises. “Don’t press any numbers. Scammers are using illegal robocalls to pitch everything from scam coronavirus treatments to work-at-home schemes. The recording might say that pressing a number will let you speak to a live operator or remove you from their call list, but it might lead to more robocalls instead.”

The FTC also warned that online sales of coronavirus vaccinations and home test kits should also be avoided.

“The FTC and FDA have jointly issued warning letters to seven sellers of unapproved and misbranded products, claiming that you can treat or prevent the coronavirus,” the FTC added. “The companies’ products include teas, essential oils and colloidal silver. The FTC says the companies have no evidence to back up their claims — as required by law. The FDA says there are no approved vaccines, drugs or investigational products currently available to treat or prevent the virus.”

The North Carolina robocall hotline is 844-8-NO-ROBO. Any other complaints can be made after calling 877-5-NO-SCAM. Price gouging complaints can also be filed at ncdoj.gov/pricegouging.

Those outside North Carolina may call 919-716-6000.

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