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Americans Are Losing Millions to COVID-19 Scams

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  • Coronavirus-related scams have cost Americans nearly $39 million, according to a report from the FTC.
  • The SEC has also seen increased complaints about misconduct as a result of the pandemic, noting that fraudsters often “exploit difficult situations” for their own financial gain.
  • Some scams include robotexts pretending to be the IRS, which lure people to give their information under the belief that it will allow them to receive their stimulus check.
  • In one case, a man was arrested for allegedly attempting to defraud New York City out of $45 million in a scheme to sell protective gear, that was not even in his possession, at a jacked rate.

FTC Says Americans Lost $39 Million

As the novel coronavirus has spread throughout the United States, so have scams relating to the pandemic, leading to millions of dollars lost and, in some cases, arrests.

Federal Trade Commission says they have received over 52,000 complaints related to the coronavirus, resulting in Americans losing nearly $39 million in scams. The majority of their complaints are about fraud, and of all the fraud complaints they receive, roughly 45% resulted in a financial loss. Their report, which was released on May 21, states that the median loss per person is $470.

Many of the scams have to do with travel and vacation. There were 8,196 reports pertaining to this kind of scam, resulting in $14,239 lost. Online shopping trailed behind as the second most reported scam, as well as the second-highest loss. 

People aged 30-39 lead the pack in reporting this behavior, followed by people aged 40-49. However, the age groups that ended up losing the most money were the 60-69 age bracket, followed by those who are 50-59. 

SEC Complaints Increase

The FTC is not alone in fielding COVID-19-related complaints. According to Reuters the Security and Exchange Commission says they have seen 4,000 complaints from mid-March to mid-May, which is a 35% increase from that same time period last year.

“Unfortunately, fraudsters often seek to exploit difficult situations like the ongoing pandemic for their own gain,” one SEC spokesperson told Reuters. 

The SEC believes that this has to do with the increase in complaints, and that the far-reaching scale of this crisis has created an influx of misconduct.

Reuters’ report indicated that the SEC also thinks the complaints can be attributed to an increase in whistleblowers due to unemployment. They say that many of their tips come from people recently laid off reporting on issues with their former employers. Because they are no longer employed by these companies, they no longer fear facing punishment at work and are freer to speak.

The SEC is expecting to deal with a variety of misconduct, which could include “loan fraud, price-gouging, counterfeit or substandard medical goods, or healthcare fraud.”

Right now, they’ve created a new group that looks out for misconduct. The efforts of this group have led to the suspension of trading in “31 so-called penny stocks for allegedly touting dubious COVID-19 cures, tests, treatments and medical supplies to investors.”

The SEC told Reuters that they charged two organizations related to this, Applied BioSciences Corp and Turbo Global Partners Inc.

COVID-19 Scams Uncovered

As for what kind of scams people should be on the lookout for in their day-to-day lives, CNBC warned of a new robotext scam that is fooling people into thinking they were communicating with the Internal Revenue Service.

The text states the IRS needs you to confirm information about your stimulus check. It then takes you to a realistic-looking IRS website that asks for personal details like your Social Security number. CNBC says that after this, to make the scam look all the more legitimate, it takes you to the real IRS website. 

However, it’s not just robot messages and calls landing people in hot water. In New York, the Department of Justice arrested a man who had a massive scheme to defraud the city of $45 million dollars.

The man, who has been identified as a used car salesman in New Jersey named Ronald Romano, allegedly attempted to “deceive and price gouge New York City into paying him and his co-conspirators approximately $45 million for personal protective equipment that Romano did not possess and was not authorized to sell.”

This scam allegedly began in February, when Romano tried to obtain mass quantities of personal protective equipment for resale, like N95 respirators.

In March he created a fake letter saying his company was authorized to sell all of this PPE. A statement from the DOJ says that brokers on his behalf approached the city, “which at the time was in critical need of legitimate, potentially lifesaving PPE, including respirators, in order to supply frontline healthcare workers and first responders during the COVID-19 public health emergency.”

Romano and his conspirators allegedly made many false representations about their PPE and had fake references. He had plans to jack the prices of the PPE significantly. 

“Romano hoped to get profit quickly through the scheme,” the statement said. “As he described in a message to a co-conspirator, ‘I’m working on a few deals that if I get any of them you might be buying a Ferrari.’”

Romano was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, one count of wire fraud, and one count of conspiracy to violate the Defense Production Act. The first two charges each carry a maximum prison sentence of up to 30 years while the last has a maximum of just one year. 

“At a time when the pandemic was ravaging New York City, this defendant greedily preyed on the City’s desperate need for protective equipment to stop the spread of the virus,” said Margaret Garnett, the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Investigations. “There is no tolerance, at any time, in particular during this crisis, for individuals who seek to victimize this City by holding essential workers’ safety hostage to price-gouging and fraud.”

See what others are saying: (CNBC) (Reuters) (Forbes)

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Florida Cracks Down on “Vaccine Tourism”

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  • Florida is now requiring that people show proof of either full-time or part-time residency in the state in order to get vaccinated against COVID-19. 
  • The state has been hit with “vaccine tourism” as many people, predominantly wealthy individuals, fly to the state from other parts of the U.S. and abroad just to get the shot. 
  • So far, nearly 41,000 of the 1.3 million doses administered in Florida went to out-of-staters, though it is unclear if all those people were tourists or if this figure includes some part-time residents.

Florida Requires Proof of Residency

Florida is cracking down on “vaccine tourism” and requiring that people show proof of either full-time or part-time residency in the state in order to get a COVID-19 shot.

Previously the state was allowing anyone 65 and older, including non-residents, to get the vaccine. This resulted in people flying to the Sunshine State from across the U.S. and abroad just for the purpose of receiving it. 

According to state data, nearly 41,000 of the 1.3 million doses Florida has administered have gone to out-of-staters. It is unclear if all these out-of-staters are tourists or if this figure includes some part-time residents. 

Now, people must show a form of identification like a driver’s license or mortgage payment to receive it. Exceptions will be made for healthcare workers. 

Vaccine Supply Continues to Be Limited

Wealthy people in particular were quick to schedule travel plans to Florida for this reason. According to the Wall Street Journal, there was an influx of Canadians booking private jets to Florida. Some were looking to book flights there and back on the same day, leaving just enough time for them to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. 

Meanwhile, people in Florida and across the country are waiting in long lines and struggling to book appointments on glitching websites to get their shots. Vaccine supply continues to be incredibly limited and not everyone in high-risk groups have received them.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said this rule is not made to impact snowbirds, people who live in Florida during the winter to escape cold weather up north. 

“They go to doctors here or whatever, that’s fine, DeSantis said, according to CNN. “What we don’t want is tourists, foreigners. We want to put seniors first, but we obviously want to put people that live here first in line.”

See what others are saying: (Wall Street Journal) (CNN) (Travel + Leisure)

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Amanda Gorman Wows the Nation With “The Hill We Climb”

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  • Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old poet, impressed the nation when she read “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration, making her the youngest inaugural poet in the nation’s history.
  • Gorman’s said the Jan. 6 attack on the nation’s Capitol inspired her to focus on a message of hope, community, and healing in her poem.
  • Big names like Oprah Winfrey, Anderson Cooper, Barack Obama, and Lin-Manuel Miranda have all praised her work.

Amanda Gorman Becomes Youngest Inaugural Poet

Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman wowed the nation on Wednesday as she spoke of healing, unity, hope, and what it means to be American while reading her poem, “The Hill We Climb.”

At 22-years-old Gorman is the youngest inaugural poet in the nation’s history. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she was the youth poet laureate of Los Angeles in 2014 at the age of 16. She then became the first national youth poet laureate in 2017. 

Now, her books are topping Amazon’s Best Sellers list and they are not even scheduled to be released until the fall.

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden became a fan of Gorman after watching her give a reading at the Library of Congress. She then suggested that Gorman be a part of the ceremony. 

“Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped That even as we tired, we tried,” Gorman recited during inauguration. “That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious. Not because we will never again know defeat but because we will never again sow division.”

Like President Biden, Gorman has struggled with a speech impediment and has been open about her experience overcoming it. She actually used poetry as a tool to correct it. First, she used it as a way of expressing herself without having to speak. Then she used it to bring her poems to life.

“Once I arrived at the point in my life in high school, where I said, ‘you know what? Writing my poems on the page isn’t enough for me,” she told CBS News. “I have to give them breath, and life, I have to perform them as I am.’ That was the moment that I was able to grow past my speech impediment.”

What Inspired “The Hill We Climb”

Gorman said the inaugural committee gave her freedom and flexibility when it came to choosing what to write about. She was well on her way before the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Those events then influenced her writing. 

“It energized me even more to believe that much more firmly in a message of hope, community and healing. I felt like that was the type of poem that I needed to write and it was the type of poem that the country and the world needed to hear,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.  

That message came across clearly and the insurrection was depicted in part of “The Hill We Climb.”

“It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it. We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it, would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy and this effort very nearly succeeded,” she said. “But while democracy can be periodically delayed it can never be permanently defeated. In this truth, in this faith we trust. For while we have our eyes on the future history has its eyes on us.”

Nation Impressed by Gorman

“Wow…Wow, I just, wow you’re awesome,” Cooper said when closing his interview with her. “I am so transfixed.” 

Lin-Manuel Miranda also cheered Gorman on. “The Hill We Climb” notably references a line of scripture that appears in a “Hamilton” song. Gorman also said she used to sing the song “Aaron Burr, Sir” to help her say her R sounds and correct her speech impediment. 

“I have never been prouder to see another young woman rise!” Oprah Winfrey wrote. “Brava Brava Amanda Gorman! Maya Angelou is cheering—and so am I.”

Winfrey also gave Gorman a ring with a caged bird on it—a reference to the famous Angelou poem— which Gorman wore during the inauguration. 

Actor Mark Ruffalo joined the onslaught of praise, saying that her words will lead the nation. 

Former President Barack Obama echoed that idea as well, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Gorman promised to run for president one day. 

See what others are saying: (CBS News) (New York Times) (Los Angeles Times)

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SAT Drops Subject Tests and Optional Essay Section

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  • The College Board will discontinue SAT subject tests effective immediately and will scrap the optional essay section in June. 
  • The organization cited the coronavirus pandemic as part of the reason for accelerating these changes.
  • Regarding subject tests, the College Board said the other half of the decision rested on the fact that Advanced Placement tests are now more accessible to low-income students and students of color, making subject tests unnecessary. 
  • It also said it plans to launch a digital version of the SAT in the near future, despite failing to implement such a plan last year after a previous announcement.

College Board Ends Subject Tests and Optional Essay

College Board announced Tuesday that it will scrap the SAT’s optional essay section, as well as subject tests.

Officials at the organization cited the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the reason for these changes, saying is has “accelerated a process already underway at the College Board to simplify our work and reduce demands on students.”

The decision was also made in part because Advanced Placement tests, which College Board also administers, are now available to more low-income students and students of color. Thus, College Board has said this makes SAT subject tests unnecessary. 

While subject tests will be phased out for international students, they have been discontinued effective immediately in the U.S. 

Regarding the optional essay, College Board said high school students are now able to express their writing skills in a variety of ways, a factor which has made the essay section less necessary.

With several exceptions, it will be discontinued in June.

The Board Will Implement an Online SAT Test

In its announcement, College Board also said it plans to launch a revised version of the SAT that’s aimed at making it “more flexible” and “streamlined” for students to take the test online.

In April 2020, College Board announced it would be launching a digital SAT test in the fall if schools didn’t reopen. The College Board then backtracked on its plans for a digital test in June, before many schools even decided they would remain closed.

According to College Board, technological challenges led to the decision to postpone that plan.

For now, no other details about the current plan have been released, though more are expected to be revealed in April. 

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NPR) (The New York Times)

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