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Top consumer scams of 2020: Here’s what to watch out for as pandemic continues

Watch out for scams. New York Attorney General Letitia James released a list of the top consumer scams that were perpetrated against residents in 2020.

Most of them were connected in some way to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The havoc unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to the numerous other ways consumers were defrauded in 2020, sadly resulted in my office receiving a record number of consumer fraud complaints in 2020,” said Attorney General James. “Consumers who have helped identify and report issues to our office have been invaluable partners in our efforts to stop deceptive scams and will continue to be vital partners going forward. I urge all New Yorkers to follow these tips to minimize the risk of falling victim to fraud, but, when fraud does occur, my office will continue to fight to protect New York consumers.”

The nature of complaints received by the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) in 2020 reflected great consumer harm caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s how they all ranked:

#1: Internet-Related (internet services and service providers, data privacy and security, digital media, data breaches, frauds through internet manipulation)

#2: COVID-19 Price Gouging (online and brick and mortar gouging of prices for items such as hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, bathroom tissue, food)

#3: Landlord/Tenant Disputes (security deposit releases, tenant-harassment)

#4: Health Clubs (continuous charging of fees while clubs were closed, inability to cancel memberships, refunds not provided, no response from clubs)

#5: Automobile (sales, service, financing, repairs)

#6: Consumer Services (security systems, tech repairs, immigration services, employment training)

#7: Retail Sales (any sale of goods: food, clothing, rent-to-own, online orders)

#8: Credit (debt collection, credit card billing, debt settlement and debt relief, payday loans, credit repair, credit reporting agencies, identity theft)

#9: Utilities (wireless and residential phones, energy servicers and suppliers, cable and satellite)

#10: Travel (inability to cancel or lack of refunds for cancellations required by COVID-19 travel restrictions)

Attorney General James also offered consumers the following tips they should practice to minimize the risk of themselves or their family members becoming victims of COVID-19 related scams going forward:

Vaccine-Related Scams: The COVID-19 vaccine is NOT currently available to the general population in New York. A complete list of groups eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine is available on the New York state Department of Health’s website. Consumers are warned to beware of offers promising early or expedited access to the vaccine for a fee. These offers — which may be transmitted by text, phone, or email — are NOT legitimate. Scammers may impersonate public health officials from organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO). Fraudsters may also offer to ship a COVID-19 vaccine directly to homes, provide special access to vaccines or clinical trials, or sell special cold storage devices to maintain vaccines.

New Yorkers are urged to practice the following tips to avoid vaccine-related scams:

  • Be wary of anyone calling or emailing with offers of a vaccine and do not give out Social Security numbers, personal credit card numbers, or bank account information. No one from a vaccine distributor, a health care company, or a private insurance company will ask for this information.
  • No New Yorker should be charged any amount out of pocket — regardless of whether they have insurance or not — to get the vaccine while the pandemic remains a public health emergency. If a New Yorker is charged anything, including an administration fee, they should file a complaint on the OAG’s website.
  • No one can pay to put their name on a list to get the vaccine or to get into a vaccine clinical trial.

Fake Vaccine Cards: Consumers are warned to beware of phony vaccine cards sold on social media platforms or other areas of the Internet. Vaccine cards typically record the date a vaccine is administered, the vaccine manufacturer, and the batch number, and are provided by the vaccination site for a consumer’s own records. The target market for these phony cards may be people who want to avoid the vaccine or who mistakenly believe the card is required to travel or for some other purpose. Phony vaccine cards pose a public health risk and should NOT be purchased for any reason. The information consumers provide may also be used for identity theft.

Phony COVID-19 Cures: Bad actors have marketed a range of products with false claims that they can prevent, cure, or treat COVID-19. Consumers should NOT spend their money on these products, which do not work. The phony products sold range from colloidal silver products, to toothpastes, to dietary supplements, and herbal blends. Consumers should make health decisions in consultation with their health care providers. Attorney General James has sent numerous cease and desist letters to individuals and entities peddling these fake and potentially dangerous COVID-19 products, including to Alex JonesThe Silver Edge company, and Dr. Sherill Sellman, among others.

Price Gouging: Consumers and the general public are warned to pay attention to the prices charged on goods and services that are vital to their health, safety, or welfare, including hand sanitizer, toilet paper, basic medical supplies, and basic food items. New York’s price gouging statute prohibits selling these goods and services during periods of abnormal market disruption for an unconscionably excessive price. In addition to sending more than 1,900 cease and desist letters to merchants over the last year demanding price gouging to stop, the OAG stopped three third-party sellers who used Amazon to price gouge on hand sanitizers and disinfectantsThe OAG also sued a major egg distributor for gouging the price of 4 million cartons of eggs.

Health Clubs: Consumers are reminded to know their rights. New York’s Health Club Law authorizes gym members to cancel their membership under certain circumstances, including “after the services are no longer available or substantially available as provided in the contract because of the [gym’s] permanent discontinuance of operation or substantial change in operation,” and requires gym owners to provide prorated monetary refunds (NOT credits) for such cancellations within 15 days. Additionally, the law further prohibits misrepresentations about consumers’ cancellation rights. The OAG sued the parent company of two major health club chains — New York Sports Clubs and Lucille Roberts — in New York for violations of the Health Club Law.

Puppy Scams: The pandemic has dramatically increased demand for pets, as New Yorkers seek companionship during lockdown. Scammers typically pretend to be breeders and refuse in-person meetings, using COVID-19 safety protocols as an excuse. Simultaneously, these fraudsters demand additional fees, such as for shipment of pets in special “protective” crates or for pandemic insurance.

New Yorkers are urged to practice the following tips to avoid puppy scams:

  • Use a credit card to make the purchase and avoid wiring money, sending gift cards, or sending money using apps, as such transactions cannot be refunded and are not traceable.
  • Conduct a thorough internet search of the breeder before purchasing a puppy to ensure the email address being used is not the same being used across multiple websites and that any testimonials are not copied from other, legitimate websites.
  • Visit the breeder and puppy in person, using social distancing. If a consumer is unable to do so, they should request that the breeder video chat with them. Consumers are strongly advised against purchasing a puppy without visual confirmation. Consumers should also be sure to get visual confirmation before making any sort of deposit. Consumers should insist on seeing where the animals are kept and avoid breeders who offer to meet at a “convenient” public location.
  • Keep in mind that shipping any young animal long distances, especially as air cargo in the hot summer months, carries a great deal of risk. Picking up the puppy in-person and flying back with them under the passenger seat in a carrier is strongly recommended. Beware that scammers typically make a number of excuses related to shipping to get more money from consumers.

In the event a consumer is the victim of fraud, they should be sure to retain all records of the sale, including advertising and written communications.

Consumers can learn more about COVID-19 resources and consumer scams on the OAG website. Attorney General James reminds consumers that in addition to being vigilant, they should report instances of fraud to her office. Consumers are encouraged to file complaints by completing and submitting a Consumer Frauds and Protection Bureau online complaint form or by calling (800) 771-7755 if they are unable to submit a form online.

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