With many people on the Atlanta subway ill, struggling or scared due to the coronavirus outbreak, there is no shortage of bad actors looking to capitalize on the pandemic.
It’s sad but true.
From miracle virus cures to instant COVID-19 tests to counterfeit face masks, there are fraudulent products and products. And like most things, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
Due to the prevalence and sophistication of some of these operations, federal agencies have stepped in to try to lessen their impact. That includes shutting down illicit websites, arresting scammers and informing the public about best practices.
While many of these operations span the globe, some are in the Atlanta metro area. The United States Department of Homeland Security recently arrested a Fayetteville woman for allegedly smuggling an illegal pesticide into northern Georgia and selling it on eBay as a protective measure against COVID-19, which is not the case.
RELATED: The Feds accuse a Georgia woman of selling illegal products that she said would fight the coronavirus
In preparation for the COVID-19 scams, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) launched Operation Stolen Promise, which targets coronavirus-related fraud and aims to shutdown fake medical supplies and fake pharmaceuticals.
Robert Hammer, acting special agent in charge of HSI Atlanta, spoke exclusively to AJC.com about the operation, agent tactics, and best practices for Georgians to protect themselves from these scams.
Here is what I had to say.
Q: At what point did the counterfeit merchandise and other COVID-19 schemes catch the attention of the Department of Homeland Security?
Hammer: That’s something we’ve really been strong and focused on since the agency’s inception.
Regardless of the scheme or the threat or the criminal organization, there is always someone trying to import things illegally. Criminals are opportunistic individuals and organizations, and COVID-19 is the current threat. So what we see is that they are trying to exploit the American consumer by importing COVID-19 related stuff now.
Fortunately, we’ve been postulated since the agency’s inception to be able to deal with this, so this is just a different flavor of threat.
Q: What caused the launch of this specific program? What do you intend to achieve?
Hammer: I think the important thing about Operation Stolen Promise is that it is an external campaign that really demonstrates two things to the public:
One is that the police are there in a unified way to respond to this national pandemic to try to protect the American consumer from fraudulent goods entering the United States, which we have seen in Georgia. These assets have put the health and safety of the public at risk. We are there as a show of strength to stop this.
In addition, this campaign helps educate the American consumer to make some of these mistakes by falling victim to some of these scams. We really see this not only as an implementation strategy but also as an educational strategy to try to meet the demand for these products.
Q: How local are these scams? Are these bad actors in Atlanta or are they operating elsewhere in the United States or internationally?
Hammer: All of the above, unfortunately. So we have their foreign actors, we have people who open websites around the world trying to make financial profit from COVID-19 solutions, and we have local people who are benefiting.
As we have seen in some case examples, we have had indications of price increases, illegal writing and importation of products that are not safe for people but that are advertised to keep COVID-19 away. We have many scams going on.
Q: What illicit products or merchandise are these sellers selling?
Hammer: We have many different categories of that.
One of the biggest scams we’ve seen is fraudulent test kits. Especially before this COVID-19 thing increased and before testing was regularly available, a lot of people went online and started creating dummy websites to announce that they could buy COVID-19 test kits and they would send mail a test kit. We were intercepting the thousands of COVID-19 test kits from foreign countries that were not FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) approved test kits.
There is a risk there. If something gets into the back of the nose, what is getting into the back of the nose if it is not FDA approved? And even if it didn’t hurt you, if it told you that you were negative when you were positive or that you were positive when you were really negative, what is the emotional impact of that? What are the second order effects of that? There are many problems that can arise from someone using an unauthorized test kit. That is one of the great things we have seen.
You recently saw the arrest of the local eBay seller we had here in Georgia that imported these insecticides that you would wear around your neck as a kind of protection ring around your body that would prevent the virus from entering your body. So we’ve had some of that.
We have had hoarding, we have had gouges, we have had people selling N95 masks for 14-20 times more than the normal rate for those masks.
Q: What scams or schemes are popping up right now?
Hammer: I don’t want to tilt my hand over what we’re seeing, that would make it harder for us to be effective as law enforcement if we were to tilt our hand and let the bad guys know where we are going.
I would say that the current trends that are evolving are in the media and in the news that the consumer sees. Those are driving other avenues of fraud. It all comes down to this: Americans right now are looking for a sign of hope. They are desperate for something.
Criminals are taking advantage of that, and exploiting that desire, that hope that Americans want right now. It’s a shame, but criminals are great at exploiting people in desperate situations.
Q: Is there a way to tell the specific groups these scammers target?
Hammer: We have seen some scams in elder care, but I really don’t know if it was directed that way. We have had many older people who have been victims of some of these COVID-19 test fraud scams. I’m not sure they were attacked, but we’ve seen statistically higher incidents from the elderly population requesting some of these test kits online.
Q: Is there a way to quantify the number of people in the Atlanta metro area or just overall who may have been affected by these scams so far?
Hammer: When we enter companies that sell items on the Internet by the thousands and when we enter local companies that accumulate masks by the thousands, it is difficult to know. We haven’t been able to put a real quantifiable number behind that yet.
I would say that the number of sales is definitely indicative of the number of victims. I would easily feel comfortable saying, perhaps not necessarily in Georgia, but overall what we have seen as a cumulative number of all the people we have arrested who have easily victimized over a thousand people.
Q: It seems like everyone has received a scam call or phishing email at some point. Are those schemes cooked?
Hammer: Absolutely. As I have said, criminals are creatures of opportunity, and they are not a one-way organization. They will try their best, be it unsolicited emails, unsolicited calls, website setup, word of mouth in the local community or in any case. They will try to remove the fraud using all the methods they can.
Q: Often these bad actors pretend to be law enforcement officers. Is there any way the average person can tell if someone who claims to be with the police is not really who they say they are?
Hammer: If I get a call from someone who claims to be in law enforcement, and I have never dealt with that person, the easiest thing for me is to pick up the phone and call back the general number of the agency they say they work for.
In general, you should make sure that government websites end in “.gov”. Look at websites and email addresses, especially email addresses. It is very, very rare, I would say that I have hardly ever seen this in my career, that in law enforcement, unsolicited, we send someone an email out of the blue.
Where did we get your email address from? How do we know that this is your email address? We don’t have a massive database with everyone’s email address and we just email them instead of calling them.
Q: What are some red flags that people should be aware of when buying these commonly fraudulent products?
Hammer: Buy from a reputable seller. What does that mean? That means its big traditional stores. Would you buy your pharmaceuticals for your mother from a boy behind an alley or would you buy them from a CVS or Walgreens?
Buying from an unrecognized website or from a website abroad that says they will send you a medicine, which is equivalent to buying a medicine in an alley of a type that comes out of a van.
The consumer needs to be smart. They must be looking for reputable sellers. They need to look at reviews, independent reviews if they’re not recognizable big store names. Before you hit that submit button and before you give them information, be sure to check who you’re dealing with.
Q: If someone comes across something related to COVID-19 online that they think is potentially fraudulent, say, for example, an online listing or website, what should they do?
Hammer: We have a nationally established team that is monitoring, once again, they are scanning all of the online websites, but they are also reviewing all the tips and leads that are coming in from the public. What you can see can be related to something that thousands of people have seen. It may be linked to an ongoing criminal investigation we have. And that team that we created specifically for COVID-19 fraud is capable of linking those things.
That’s just an email to [email protected].
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