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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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What You Need To Know About the Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Pause

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  • The CDC and the FDA have issued a joint recommendation to pause distribution of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine amid reports that six women experienced “extremely rare” blood clots after receiving the single-dose shot.
  • The vast majority of the 6.8 million Americans who were given the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have reported minor to no side effects, and no direct link has been established between the vaccine and blood clots at this time. 
  • The two agencies are expected to release updated guidance in the coming days.
  • Several states and cities are now automatically giving the two-dose Pfizer vaccine to people who were scheduled to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week. 

CDC and FDA Recommend J&J Vaccine Halt

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Food and Drug Administration, released a statement Tuesday recommending a pause on the use of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine.

So far, 6.8 million people in the U.S. have been vaccinated with Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine, most with zero or only mild side effects.

The updated guidance comes after six women, all between the ages of 18 to 48, experienced what both agencies described as “extremely rare” blood clots six to 13 days after being vaccinated. One of those women has died and another is in critical condition.

Neither the CDC nor the FDA has confirmed that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the cause of these blood clots; rather, they said this guidance comes “out of an abundance of caution.”

That’s also in line with Johnson & Johnson itself, which said it’s aware of the reports but added that “no clear causal relationship has been established between these rare events.” As a precaution, Johnson & Johnson has also now delayed the rollout of its vaccine in Europe. 

What Happens From Here?

Principal Deputy Director of the CDC Anne Schuchat said further recommendations will come quickly.

FDA Acting Commissioner Janet Woodcock echoed that statement, saying, “We expect it to be a matter of days for this pause.”

Wednesday, a CDC committee will convene to discuss the cases and assess their potential significance.

When asked if the government was overreacting to just six cases out of nearly 7 million vaccinations (a criticism made by some online), Schuchat said the CDC pulled its recommendation specifically because the type of blood clots seen in these 6 women requires special treatment, so “it was of the utmost importance to us to get the word out.”

In the meantime, both agencies are urging Johnson & Johnson vaccine recipients to contact their doctors if they experience any combination of severe headaches, abdominal pain, leg pain, or shortness of breath. 

What If I Had A J&J Appointment?

Both agencies, as well as other health officials, are still urging unvaccinated people to take the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines when available in their area.

The White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator has said that 28 million doses of those vaccines will be made available this week. Notably, that’s more than enough for the country to continue giving 3 million shots a day. 

If you had an appointment scheduled to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, you’re likely not completely out of luck.

For example, while D.C. vaccination sites are canceling all Johnson & Johnson appointments between Tuesday and this Saturday, the health department there has said it’ll send out invitations on Wednesday to reschedule.

Similar situations were reported in Virginia and Maryland, though some vaccination sites in Maryland are still honoring existing appointments by automatically giving people Pfizer instead. That’s also a process that is now being conducted in places like New York State and Memphis.

See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (NBC News) (The Washington Post)

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Minnesota Protests Continue for a Second Night Over Police Killing of Daunte Wright

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  • Protests continued in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, on Monday over the death of Daunte Wright, who was fatally shot by a police officer who allegedly thought she was using her Taser.
  • Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators violating the 7 p.m. curfew, as well as others who threw projectiles back at the officers. Several incidents of looting were reported, though law enforcement officials said they were minimal.
  • That same evening, police officials identified the officer involved in Wright’s death as Kimberly Potter, a 26-year veteran of the force, prompting many experts to flag numerous reasons an officer with her experience should have known not to confuse her weapon with a stun gun.
  • Wright tendered her resignation on Tuesday, as did Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon.

Second Night of Demonstrations 

Demonstrators clashed with police for the second night in a row Monday after an officer shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota.

Much like protests the day before, the events reportedly started out peaceful, with hundreds attending a vigil on the street where Wright was killed. Hundreds more gathered outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department.

The situation started to escalate after 7 p.m. when the curfew instituted across all four Twin City metro-area countries went into effect. According to reports, police began to warn people that they were in violation of the curfew, and shortly before 8 p.m., officers began firing rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades. 

Some protesters reportedly retaliated by throwing water bottles, fireworks, and other projectiles. Later, police in riot gear pushed groups of demonstrators who had regrouped away from the police station.

Looters also broke into several businesses at a strip mall close by, including a Dollar Tree, where flames were reportedly later spotted, though law enforcement officials described the looting as limited.

During a press briefing just after midnight, officials said that 40 people had been arrested at the Brooklyn Center protest.

Officer Identified

Late Monday, state officials identified the officer who fatally shot Wright as Kimberly Potter, a 26-year veteran of the force. BCPD Chief Tim Gannon had previously said that the officer, who he refused to name, had intended to use her Taser, but accidentally used her gun.

Many social media users and experts questioned how someone with 26 years of experience could mix up a Taser and a gun, including one retired sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department, who told The New York Times, “If you train enough, you should be able to tell.” 

The Times also noted that it is not common for officers to mix up their Tasers and guns, that most police forces — including BCPD — use a variety of protocols to prevent this from happening

Tasers are usually designed with specific features to distinguish them from guns, such as bright color-coating and different styles of grips. According to The Times, the BCPD manual cites three different pistol models as standard-issue, all three of which “weigh significantly more than a typical Taser.”

Those pistols also have a trigger safety that can be felt when touching them, while the Tasers do not. The outlet additionally noted that BCPD protocol requires officers to wear guns on their dominant sides and Tasers on the opposite to prevent exactly this kind of confusion.

Beyond that, Potter’s actions may have violated department policy even if she had used her Taser because the manual says it should not be used on people “whose position or activity may result in collateral injury,” including those “operating vehicles.” 

It also says that officers should make “reasonable efforts” to avoid using the stun gun on people in the “head, neck, chest and groin,” but Wright was shot in the chest. 

On Tuesday afternoon, it was reported that Potter and Chief Gannon have resigned from the force. The resignations come after Brooklyn Center leaders dismissed the city manager, a decision that could potentially give Mayor Mike Elliot the ability to fire the chief or officers in the department.

The resignations also come amid reports that Potter had been involved in another police-involved shooting in 2019, where she had been “admonished by investigators for allegedly attempting to conceal evidence after a police shooting that left a 21-year-old autistic man dead,” according to The Daily Beast.

Misinformation Spreads

As more information comes out surrounding the traffic stop that led to Wright’s death, several pieces of misinformation have also continued to spread on social media.

Most of the false information centers around the warrant for Wrights’ arrest that prompted police to attempt to detain him.

According to reports, court records show that a judge issued the warrant earlier this month after he missed a court appearance for two misdemeanor charges he was facing from last June for carrying a pistol without a permit and running from officers. 

Notably, Wright does have a number of past charges filed against him, including two for attempted sale of Marijuana and aggravated robbery. Despite claims by many social media users, those charges were for separate incidents, and the warrant was specifically for failing to appear in court for the June charge.

There has also been a viral video circulating Twitter and TikTok claiming court records show that the hearing notification was sent to the wrong address, seemingly in reference to a piece of mail that had failed to be delivered in his court records.

The mail, however, was actually for a different case and is not connected to the notification for the hearing he missed. While that video is incorrect and county officials maintain that they did send him notification, Wright’s public defender, Arthur Martinez, told reporters his client had never received the notice and that the court had not informed him either.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Minneapolis Star Tribune) (The Daily Beast)

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Protests Erupt in Minnesota After Police Shooting of Daunte Wright

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  • Protests erupted in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, Sunday evening after police shot and killed Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop.
  • Police officials said an officer had intended to use a stun gun on Wright as he was attempting to re-enter his vehicle, and in body camera footage, the unidentified officer can be heard threatening to use her Taser before discharging her gun and exclaiming, “Holy sh*t, I shot him.”
  • Peaceful demonstrations started almost immediately but later devolved into violence and looting as some began clashing with police, who responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets.
  • The shooting and subsequent demonstrations added to heightened tensions in the area, which is just miles away from where former officer Derek Chauvin is currently on trial for murder over the death of George Floyd.

Daunte Wright Shooting

Protests and violence broke out Sunday in Brooklyn Center, Minneapolis, after police shot and killed a Black man during s traffic stop just miles away from the courtroom where Derek Chauvin is facing murder charges for the death of George Floyd.

Local officials confirmed Monday morning that the man was 20-year-old Daunte Wright, who had previously been identified by his family. In a press release Sunday, the Brooklyn Center Police Department said that officers had pulled his car over for a traffic violation around 2 p.m. and discovered that he had a warrant out for his arrest. 

According to the statement, Wright tried to re-enter his car while police were trying to take him into custody. One of the officers fired their gun, hitting Daunte, whose car traveled several blocks before striking another vehicle.

Officers and medical personnel “attempted life saving measures,” but he was ultimately declared dead at the scene. A female passenger, who Daunte’s family identified as his girlfriend, also “sustained non-life threatening injuries” and was transported to the hospital. The people in the other vehicle were not hurt.

In a press conference Monday, Police Chief Tim Gannon said the officer who fatally shot Wright had meant to Taser him instead. He played body-camera footage that showed two officers approach the vehicle from each side. A third office approached later as the two tried to handcuff Wright, who can be seen struggling.

The third officer threatens to Taser Wright before firing her weapon, and immediately after, she can be heard saying “Holy shit, I shot him,” seemingly to realize she had fired her gun weapon instead of her Taser. Gannon said the unidentified officer has been placed on administrative leave.

Gannon claimed police had initially stopped Wright because his registration had expired, but that account appears to contradict the account from his family. On Sunday, his mother, Katie Wright, told reporters that her son was driving a car his family had given him two weeks ago and called her when he was pulled over.

“He said they pulled him over because he had air fresheners hanging from his rearview mirror,” she said, adding that she had asked Daunte to give his phone to a police officer so she could give them the car insurance information.

Protests Break Out

According to local reports, hundreds of protestors gathered at the scene in initially peaceful demonstrations. Officers in riot gear responded to secure the area, people reportedly jumped on police cars, and some threw concrete blocks.

Police fired nonlethal rounds to try to disperse the crowd, and Wright’s mother called for protestors to calm down over a loudspeaker.

Protestors regrouped later that night, with hundreds reportedly marching to the Brooklyn Center Police Department headquarters. Again, the demonstrations were initially peaceful, but according to local reports, at around 9:30, police declared an unlawful assembly and gave people ten minutes to disperse.

About 25 minutes later, they started firing less-lethal rounds and flash-bang grenades into the crowds that remained. The standoff continued to escalate through the night, with police reportedly firing rubber bullets and chemical agents at protesters, some of whom threw rocks, bags of garbage, and water bottles back at them.

National Guard troops arrived just before midnight and looters began targeting nearby stores, including a Walmart and shopping mall.  According to reports, several businesses were completely destroyed, and around 20 total were targeted.

Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott ordered a curfew until 6 a.m., and the local school superintendent said the district would hold classes remotely “out of an abundance of caution.”

The commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety also said Monday that more National Guard troops will be deployed to the area this week, where some were already stationed as part of a public safety plan put in place during the Chauvin trial.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (The Minneapolis Star Tribune)

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