- 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.”
After Uvalde, Politicians, Public Figures, Gun Violence Survivors, and More Call For Change
“When are we going to do something?” Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr asked during an emotional plea at a press conference.
Uvalde Shooting Kills 21 People
Democratic politicians, activists, and many others are calling for gun reform in the United States after 19 children and two teachers were killed in a Tuesday shooting at Robb Hill Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
The 18-year-old suspected gunman was reportedly killed by officers. The massacre marks the 27th school shooting of 2022, according to Education Week.
It also comes just a week and a half after 10 people were killed in a shooting in Buffalo, New York, and another shooting in a Southern California church left one person dead and several others injured.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Ct.) spoke fervently on the Senate floor Tuesday, slamming his colleagues for refusing to pass gun control legislation that could prevent future shootings.
“What are we doing?” he asked of his fellow lawmakers. “Why do you spend all this time running for the United States Senate? Why do you through all the hassle of getting this job, of putting yourself in a position of authority, if your answer is, as the slaughter increases, as kids run for their lives, we do nothing? What are we doing?
“Why are you here if not to solve a problem as existential as this?” he continued. “This isn’t inevitable. These kids weren’t unlucky. This only happens in this country.”
“And it is a choice. It is our choice.”
President Joe Biden likewise urged action by supporting the now-expired assault weapons ban.
“We can do more. We must do more,” he added.
Public Figures And Shooting Survivors Speak Out
The demands for change spread far past political figures. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr took time out of a pre-game press conference to passionately plead for common-sense gun control. He specifically called on Senators to vote on H.R. 8, a background check bill previously passed in the House.
“When are we going to do something?” Kerr asked while slamming his hands on the table.
“I ask you, Mitch McConnell, I ask all of you senators who refuse to do anything about the violence and school shootings and supermarket shootings. I ask you: Are you going to put your own desire for power ahead of the lives of our children and our elderly and our churchgoers?” Kerr continued. “Because that’s what it looks like.”
He went on to say that Americans, who largely support background checks, are “being held hostage by 50 Senators who refuse to even put it to a vote.”
Grammy Award-winning musician Taylor Swift shared his message, adding that she is filled with “rage and grief” not just from the shootings, but by “the ways in which we, as a nation, have become conditioned to unfathomable and unbearable heartbreak.”
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” tweeted David Hogg, an activist and survivor of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. “The way we will make this time different is by Americans on both sides of the aisle collaborating on what we can agree on to get something done even if small. Kids are dying we have to do something.”
Manuel Oliver, the father of one of the children lost in the Parkland shooting, slammed the inaction of politicians in an interview on CBS News.
“The families don’t need your freaking hearts,” Oliver said. “They need their kids, and the kids are not there anymore. So I feel very angry and offended and I just don’t understand how come a whole society doesn’t wake up.”
People impacted by the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting also spoke out, including Mary Ann Jacob, who worked as a librarian at the school during the shooting.
“I’m so sorry those deaths did not change our world,” Jacob wrote.
Texas-based figures felt especially compelled to stand up as the tragedy hit so close to home. Academy Award-winning actor Matthew McConaughey, whose hometown is Uvalde, wrote a message on social media asking Americans to “take a longer and deeper look in the mirror and ask ourselves, ‘What is it that we truly value?’”
“We have tragically proven that we are failing to be responsible for the rights our freedoms grant us,” McConaughey wrote.
“Action must be taken so that no parent has to experience what the parents in Uvalde and the others before them have endured.”
Fellow Texas native Selena Gomez also took to social media to argue for action.
“If children aren’t safe at school where are they safe? It’s so frustrating and I’m not sure what to say anymore,” the “Only Murders in the Building” star wrote on her Instagram story. “Those in power need to stop giving lip service and actually change the laws to prevent these shootings in the future.”
We make it a point to not include the names and pictures of those who may have been seeking attention or infamy and will not link out to websites that might contain such information.
Lawmakers Call For Action as Oil Companies Post Record Profits Amid Rising Gas Prices
A recent analysis from the Center for American Progress found that the top five oil companies earned over 300% more in profits during the first quarter of 2022 than the same period last year.
As Consumer Prices Climb, Big Oil Profits
American oil companies are facing increased scrutiny over profiteering practices as gas prices continue to surpass record highs driven by Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.
Last week, costs surged to above $4 per gallon in all 50 states for the first time ever, according to the auto club AAA. Prices are currently averaging over $4.59 per gallon nationwide, which is 50% higher than they were this time last year.
In addition to consumers hurting at the pump, there are also rising concerns for industries that rely on fuel and oil like trucking, freight, airlines, and plastic manufacturers.
To account for high prices, some in sectors have responded by ramping up prices further down the supply chain to account for costs, putting even more of a burden on consumers to pay for everyday items.
But as Americans struggle with sky-high gas prices at a time of record inflation, recently released earnings reports show that many of the world’s largest oil companies thrived in the first quarter of 2022.
ExxonMobil more than doubled its earnings from the same period last year, reporting a net profit of $5.5 billion. Meanwhile, Chevron logged its best quarterly earnings in almost a decade, and Shell had its highest earnings ever.
According to a new analysis conducted by the Center for American Progress, the top five oil companies — including the three mentioned above — earned over 300% more in profits this quarter than during the same time last year.
“In fact, these five companies’ first-quarter profits alone are equivalent to almost 28 percent of what Americans spent to fill up their gas tanks in the same time period,” the report noted.
Per Insider, for at least four of those companies, that growth marks a tremendous increase in profits from even before the pandemic.
Lawmakers Ramp-Up Efforts to Reduce Prices
To address these startling disparities, federal lawmakers have moved in recent weeks to increase pressure on oil companies and take steps to lower prices.
On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a bill proposed by Rep. Katie Porter (D-Ca.) that aims to reduce gas prices. The legislation, called The Consumer Fuel Price Gouging Prevention Act, would give the president the authority to issue an Energy Emergency Declaration that would be effective for up to 30 days with the possibility of being renewed.
In that emergency period, it would be illegal for anyone to increase gas or home energy fuel prices to a level that is exploitative or “unconscionably excessive.”
The proposal would also give the Federal Trade Commission the power to investigate and manage instances of price gouging from larger companies and give state authorities the ability to enforce price-gouging violations in civil courts.
The bill, which has already seen widespread opposition from Republicans and extensive lobbying from pro-oil interest groups, faces an uphill battle in the 50-50 split Senate.
During debate on the act Thursday, Rep. Porter delivered an impassioned speech accusing oil companies of driving their record profits by using their market power to unfairly increase prices.
“The oil and gas industry currently has more than 9,000 permits to drill for oil on federal land, but they are deliberately keeping production low to please their investors and increase their short-term profits,” she said. “Even when the price of crude oil falls, oil and gas companies have refused to pass those savings on to consumers.”
“Let me be clear: price gouging is anti-capitalist,” Porter continued. “It exploits a lack of competition, which is a hallmark of capitalism. It is an effort to juice corporate profits at the expense of customers. Energy markets are reeling because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Big oil companies, however, are using this temporary chaos to cover up their abuse.”
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Vox) (NPR)
Lincoln College to Close for Good After COVID and Ransomware Attack Ruin Finances
Last year, 1,043 schools in the U.S. were the victim of ransomware attacks, including 26 colleges or universities, according to an analysis by Emsisoft.
One of the Only Historically Black Colleges in the Midwest Goes Down
After 157 years of educating mostly Black students in Illinois, Lincoln College will close its doors for good on Friday.
The college made the announcement last month, citing financial troubles caused by the coronavirus pandemic and a ransomware attack in December.
Enrollment dropped during the pandemic and the administration had to make costly investments in technology and campus safety measures, according to a statement from the school.
A shrinking endowment put additional pressure on the college’s budget.
The ransomware attack, which the college has said originated from Iran, thwarted admissions activities and hindered access to all institutional data. Systems for recruitment, retention, and fundraising were completely inoperable at a time when the administration needed them most.
In March, the college paid the ransom, which it has said amounted to less than $100,000. But according to Lincoln’s statement, subsequent projections showed enrollment shortfalls so significant the college would need a transformational donation or partnership to make it beyond the present semester.
The college put out a request for $50 million in a last-ditch effort to save itself, but no one came forward to provide it.
A GoFundMe aiming to raise $20 million for the college only collected $2,452 as of Tuesday.
Students and Employees Give a Bittersweet Goodbye
“The loss of history, careers, and a community of students and alumni is immense,” David Gerlach, the college’s president, said in a statement.
Lincoln counts nearly 1,000 enrolled students, and those who did not graduate this spring will leave the institution without degrees.
Gerlach has said that 22 colleges have worked with Lincoln to accept the remaining students, including their credits, tuition prices, and residency requirements.
“I was shocked and saddened by that news because of me being a freshman, so now I have to find someplace for me to go,” one student told WMBD News after the closure was announced.
When a group of students confronted Gerlach at his office about the closure, he responded with an emotional speech.
“I have been fighting hard to save this place,” he said. “But resources are resources. We’ve done everything we possibly could.”
On April 30, alumni were invited back to the campus to revisit the highlights of their college years before the institution closed.
On Saturday, the college held its final graduation ceremony, where over 200 students accepted their diplomas and Quentin Brackenridge performed the Lincoln Alma Mater.
Last year, 1,043 schools in the U.S. were the victim of ransomware attacks, including 26 colleges or universities, according to an analysis by Emsisoft.