Butler County officials warn of scams during coronavirus fear, uncertainty

In this March 19, 2020 photo, a shopper looks for toilet paper at a Stop & Shop supermarket during hours open daily only for seniors in North Providence, R.I. Federal law enforcement is warning that scam artists are preying on older people’s fears by peddling fake tests for the coronavirus to Medicare recipients. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
In this March 19, 2020 photo, a shopper looks for toilet paper at a Stop & Shop supermarket during hours open daily only for seniors in North Providence, R.I. Federal law enforcement is warning that scam artists are preying on older people’s fears by peddling fake tests for the coronavirus to Medicare recipients. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Officials throughout Butler County and Ohio are warning residents to watch out for scams during the time of the cornoavirus pandemic, when suspects will use fear and uncertainty to seek money.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost recently warned that fear and uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak could spawn an outbreak of scams, which could come by phone, internet, email or your doorstep.

“COVID-19 is not the only thing we have to protect ourselves against,” Yost said. “Thieves and crooks prey on fear and uncertainty. Ohioans need to inoculate themselves against an outbreak of scams with knowledge and good practices.”

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Last Monday, U.S. Attorney David M. DeVillers said the public is urged to report suspected fraud schemes related to COVID-19 by contacting the National Center for Disaster Fraud at 1-866-720-5721 or disaster@leo.gov.

“This U.S. Attorney’s Office is open for business and we still have plenty of room in jail for those who try to line their own pockets through fraud during this pandemic,” DeVillers said. “I’ve instructed my district to ignore dollar amount or victim number thresholds usually needed for federal prosecutions. Those reprehensible enough to take advantage of our worried citizens will pay the price.”

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The NCDF can receive and enter complaints into a centralized system. The NCDF coordinates complaints with 16 additional federal law enforcement agencies, as well as state Attorneys General and local authorities.

Local law enforcement agencies said there have not been any spikes in scams since the coronavirus COVID-19 began in late January.

Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones said Friday he had not heard of any scams being reported, noting that more people are home and are paying more attention to their homes and neighborhoods.

“Everyone is watching out for each other,” he said. “There are more eyes and ears out there right now.”

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Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser said he has heard from fellow prosecutors across the nation that there have been some spikes in scams being reported.

“It’s the same thing I’ve always been preaching,” he said. “Scammers will take advantage of whatever situation is happening… And like the virus, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

He said scammers have seasons. During spring break, they target the elderly with a scam that indicates their grandchild is in need of emergency cash. During income tax season, scammers act as IRS agents demanding money to prevent someone from being arrested for not paying back taxes. In addition, do not buy gift cards, money orders, wire transfers, pre-paid money cards, etc. or use cash to pay for any of these items, officials said.

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Gmoser said he’s heard some anecdotal reports about some trying to sell access to a doctor, sell a ventilator or other device or sell medication for COVID-19.

“Education is key,” he said. “Don’t give out any banking information, Social Security numbers or any other personal information over the phone. That’s like giving someone the key to the bank.”

Gmoser said if someone isn’t sure about something or if it’s deal that’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t and people should reach out to family members or other trusted sources to verify the offer or information.

Duke Energy issued a warning to customers to watch out for scammers trying to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic. Duke Energy officials said, “we will never ask for personal information over the phone or demand payment using money orders or gift cards.”

In addition, Duke Energy on March 21 temporarily suspended disconnections for nonpayment and waived late fees as many customers may be facing unusual financial hardships as a result of COVID-19.

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Middletown police Chief David Birk said there are scams on social media. One scam asks a target to make a donation of $500 to get a return of $5,000, while another asks people to pay money up front for coronavirus vaccines and cures, medical equipment and supplies.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, “There currently are no vaccines, pills, lotions, lozenges or other prescription or over-the-counter products available to treat or cure Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) online or in stores.”

In addition, the FTC said there are no home test kits for the coronavirus and asked the public not to respond to texts, calls, click on unknown links, pop-ups or emails about COVID-19 deals or products.

At a news conference Friday, Butler County Commissioner Don Dixon and Ken Wilson, Council on Aging vice president for program operations, both said this is a time when senior citizens in the community need to be protected the most.

“Be on guard,” Wilson said. “Double-check emails and phone calls.”

“If it doesn’t feel legitimate, call the (Butler County) prosecutor’s, sheriff’s or commissioner’s offices,” Dixon said. “Be safe. Call first to protect yourselves.”

How to prevent being scammed during the coronavirus pandemic

  • Watch out for emails claiming to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or other expert sources with special advice or information about the coronavirus. Legitimate information is available for free on the CDC's website.
  • Ignore online advertisements promoting cures for the coronavirus. According to the Federal Trade Commission, "There currently are no vaccines, pills, lotions, lozenges or other prescription or over-the-counter products available to treat or cure Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) online or in stores."
  • Know who you're buying from. Online sellers may claim to have in-demand products, like cleaning, household, and health and medical supplies when, in fact, they don't.
  • Research nonprofit organizations and crowdfunding campaigns before donating. A database of registered charities is available on the Ohio Attorney General's website. Avoid groups that pressure you into donating and never donate via cash, gift cards, wire transfer or prepaid money card. These are the preferred payment methods of scammers.
  • Be cautious of anyone going door to door offering coronavirus testing or temperature readings and requesting personal information. Call law enforcement immediately if you see a suspicious person. Never let strangers into your home.
  • Beware of emails and other attempts to "phish" for your personal, financial and medical information. When in doubt, do not share. If the source claims to be your bank or a government agency, confirm they are legitimate by calling the organization at a phone number you have verified.
  • Amid discussions of providing working families with government checks, those details are being finalized. For more information, visit the Federal Trade Commission website and stay tuned for updates from reliable news sources.
  • When online, avoid clicking on unknown links or pop-ups and never download any suspicious email attachment. Doing so could infect your devices with malicious software designed to steal your personal information or lock your computer until you pay a ransom.
  • Hang up on robocalls. Don't press any numbers. Scammers are using illegal robocalls to pitch everything from scam Coronavirus treatments to work-at-home schemes. The recording might say that pressing a number will let you speak to a live operator or remove you from their call list, but it might lead to more robocalls, instead.
  • Fact-check information. Scammers, and sometimes well-meaning people, share information that hasn't been verified. Before you pass on any messages, contact trusted sources.
  • Consumers who suspect an unfair or deceptive sales practice should contact the Ohio Attorney General's Office at www.OhioProtects.org or 800-282-0515.

SOURCES: OHIO ATTORNEY GENERAL’S OFFICE, FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION