“Scammers have been even bolder during the covid-19 pandemic,” said Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “So many of us are unemployed or underemployed, stuck at home and badly in need of income. In fact, the number of income scams reported to the FTC reached the highest level on record in the second quarter of 2020. These scammers are taking advantage of a desperate situation to rip money from the hands of those of us least able to afford it.”
In a crackdown the authorities are calling “Operation Income Illusion,” the FTC — along with 19 federal, state and local law enforcement partners — is focusing on shutting down fake employment, work-at-home, multilevel marketing and investment scams.
In Maryland, Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) announced enforcement actions against several companies pitching franchise opportunities. In another scheme, promoters targeted members of the African immigrant community, promising huge returns on their investments in a cryptocurrency, a highly risky proposition even when it’s a legitimate investment.
“The past year has been especially difficult for many families who’ve lost their source of income due to the covid pandemic,” Frosh said during a news conference call. “In some cases, families are desperate to make ends meet, pay for much-needed health care or simply put food on the table. And, in addition to all the other pain this pandemic has caused, it made many Americans become especially vulnerable to income scams and unwise investment opportunities.”
The FTC has taken legal action against a number of bogus income cons, many of which are just preposterous.
— A Florida-based scam lured people in by promising they could earn between $500 and $12,500 in commissions in a digital income scheme. People paid for various levels of membership — $1,000 to $25,000 — and in return they could “earn” the right to make money off the recruitment of other people into the program. For example, someone paying $1,000 for an entrepreneur-level membership could make $500 if another person was sold a membership at that same level. There were no products involved or services offered. As I read how the scam worked, I was wondering how anyone could fall for it. But desperation can make you susceptible to what appears to be an easy way to make money.
— One scam targeted Latina consumers with a work-at-home scheme in which they would resell luxury products such as brand-name perfumes. Victims were told they could earn up to $1,000 a week. The scammers targeted “Latina consumers in the midst of the covid-19 health and economic crisis. . . seizing on economic insecurity in the community,” the FTC complaint said.
— An investment scheme targeting retirees and older adults promised they could double or triple their money in one week by taking advantage of “secret trading techniques” tied to opportunities related to the pandemic.
— Another bogus work-at-home scam claimed an affiliation with Amazon. None existed, of course. When the pandemic began, the scammers targeted people who had lost their jobs, hitting them with robocalls that allegedly said the company could offer them an opportunity to work from home and make up to $400 a day.
“As these cases show, the financial fallout of the pandemic has increased both financial distress and opportunities for scammers,” Smith said.
In announcing the enforcement actions, the FTC said it has created a new consumer education campaign about income-based scams. You can find more information at ftc.gov/incomescams.
Here’s what you can do to protect yourself from a covid-19-related income scam, according to the FTC.
— Slow down. If you find a business opportunity, take your time to investigate it. Don’t make a decision during the presentation. “High-pressure sales pitches are always a big red flag,” Smith said. I can second that. I’ve sat in on many bogus work-at-home or investment opportunity meetings. My reporting led to the shutdown of one. Here’s what I found as a sign the business opportunity wasn’t legit: The more questions I asked, the more agitated and defensive the promoter got. So ask a lot of questions.
— Don’t believe the hype of success stories or testimonials. “Our experience shows us that glowing stories can be fake, and online reviews can be made up,” Smith said.
— Skip the research and you’re more likely to be victimized. Promoters of pandemic-related scams know you’re in a hurry to make money. So they count on you not vetting their claims. Something as simple as an online search can save you from a scam. Search for the company’s name and add the words, “review,” “scam” or “complaint” to your online inquiry. “Finding no complaints doesn’t mean the company is legitimate,” Smith said, “but complaints can tip you off to possible problems.”