Inside the U.S. government’s new $30 million effort to combat pandemic profiteering

Scammers are going after the billions in stimulus payments. The FTC says it’s going after the scammers.


The scammers and schemers are coming for your cash.

No, that’s not the government calling with a threat to “suspend” your Social Security number. Yes, you’re being swindled if you’re asked to pay anybody for anything with a gift card.

Most likely, that work-at-home business or multilevel marketing opportunity will cost you more than you will ever make.

Covid-19 has created new jobs — for scammers preying on the unemployed

Identity thieves are lying to trick you into giving up your personal financial information, which they will then use to steal from credit card companies by pretending to be you.

Scams have become so sophisticated and ubiquitous that it’s hard to know whether the calls, texts and emails are fake. Technology allows hucksters with distant landlines — and now mobile phones — to display local numbers in an effort to trick you to answer.

Now, factor in the pandemic and the massive effort to get people vaccinated.

At least 112 million people have received one or both doses of the vaccine in the U.S.

The scams are coming fast and furious, relentlessly conning people at a time when they are vulnerable.

Billions of dollars in stimulus payments are being sent to Americans, and that makes them a target for fraudsters. Coronavirus-related cons have given crooks another way into people’s bank accounts, Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, whom President Biden name acting chair of the Federal Trade Commission, said in an interview with The Washington Post.

“People are desperate,” Slaughter said. “They are struggling financially. They’re worried about their health. They’re dealing with child-care issues. And that’s why it’s great that the money is coming, but bad guys are seeing that desperation, too, and are taking advantage of it as they do. We’re just looking out for people who are trying to take advantage of that stimulus money and other related programs.”

The FTC received nearly 2.2 million consumer fraud reports last year, up almost 27 percent from the year before, including a surge of online shopping complaints in the early days of the pandemic. Consumers reported losing more than $3.3 billion to fraud, up from $1.8 billion a year earlier.

Last year, the FTC introduced, an updated platform for consumers to file fraud complaints.

The FTC is seeing scams involving personal protective equipment (PPE). The agency has also pursued schemes involving the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which provides money to businesses to help them make payroll during the pandemic.

Illegal pyramid schemes are on the rise during the pandemic

In the interview, Slaughter discussed the role the FTC is playing in chasing down and prosecuting pandemic profiteers.

Tucked in the third round of stimulus aid, largely unnoticed, was $30.4 million allocated to the FTC to fight not just the old consumer scams but also new schemes with a pandemic twist.

Under the American Rescue Plan, signed by Biden on March 11, $24 million went to fund full-time employees at the FTC to address unfair or deceptive acts or practices, including those related to the coronavirus. An additional $4.4 million would go to process and monitor consumer complaints received by the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network, including increased complaints about schemes related to the pandemic, and $2 million for consumer-related education to help consumers avoid coronavirus scams.

Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation about why this money is so important — and why more is probably needed.