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THE FINE PRINT

Here’s how to avoid being scammed during the coronavirus crisis

Beware of offers for protective gear like face masks.
Beware of offers for protective gear like face masks.Justin Chin/Bloomberg

When a crisis hits, scammers step up their game to try to steal your money. As the coronavirus crisis continues, it’s a good time to keep your guard up.

Q. What’s one of the most common scams?

A. Online orders that never arrive. Let’s say you’re relieved to find an online seller of masks or other personal protective equipment (or hand sanitizer or toilet paper). But is it a legitimate company? A Framingham resident lost almost $120 after paying upfront on an order of N-95 masks that never arrived, according to a complaint filed with the Better Business Bureau.

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Q. What if someone I know vouches for the seller?

A. Still not fail-safe. Another complaint filed with the BBB depicts a seller engaged in an even more devious scam. The complainant in that case says the scammer hacked a friend’s Twitter account and then posed as the friend to recommend a particular website for buying masks. It turned out to be bogus. The complainant lost $30.

Q. What can I do to avoid getting taken?

A. When ordering online, stick with outlets you are already familiar with. Look for online reviews. If they are poor or nonexistent, watch out.

Q. What other scams are out there?

A. The office of Attorney General Maura Healey recently took action against a medical spa that implied in an Instagram post that it had a treatment for COVID-19. The AG’s office sent a warning to the spa, and the post was removed. File a complaint with the AG here.

Q. What about COVID-19 vaccinations and at-home test kits?

A. The Federal Trade Commission has straightforward advice: “Ignore online offers for vaccinations and at-home virus test kits. There are no products proven to treat or prevent COVID-19 at this time.” The same goes for offers of drugs or nutritional supplements to cure or prevent infection by the coronavirus. If there’s a product breakthrough, you are likely to hear about it first (and repeatedly) in the news media. One trusted source of information is the CDC.

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Q. What should I do if I get an offer about getting a government check?

A. Be very careful about any telephone call, e-mails, or text messages about a stimulus check. Scammers are looking for your personal information so they can hack into your accounts. Beginning as early as Wednesday, stimulus checks are to be direct-deposited into the bank accounts of individuals, including Social Security recipients. Checks will range up to $1,200 per person, depending on income. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced Tuesday that anyone who does not receive a direct deposit on Wednesday should check the IRS website for information on how to get it. The site will allow individuals to add their direct deposit information and deposits should follow within several days, he said.

Q. Describe the kind of telephone call I should be wary of?

A. The IRS is warning that someone may call you and say they are from the IRS and that they want to verify some personal information before mailing your stimulus check. They may ask for your Social Security number, date of birth, and bank account information. The caller ID on your phone may even say “IRS.” But don’t be fooled. It’s not the IRS, which will not be contacting you before sending a stimulus check.

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Q. What’s a spoof call?

A. “Spoof” calls falsely show on your phone caller ID the name of a government agency, like the IRS, Social Security Administration, or Small Business Administration. But government agencies almost always contact people by mail, not by phone, text, social media, or e-mail.

Q. What should I do if I get such a call?

A. Hang up. Even if you want to tell them you know it’s a scam, don’t. Just hang up.

Q. What should I do if I get an e-mail or text message about a stimulus check?

A. An e-mail or text message saying you can get your money faster by sending personal information or clicking on a link is not to be trusted. Don’t do it. Delete the e-mails or text messages.

Q. What other scams are out there?

A. You may be offered the opportunity to “invest” in phony COVID-19 cures. Don’t.

Q. Other scams?

A. You may get an offer to to clean and disinfect your home, so long as you pay in advance by credit card. Unless you have an ongoing relationship with the company, don’t do it.

Q. Others?

A. Beware of e-mail and text requests that seem to be from friends or relatives, asking you to buy store gift cards from a third party promising to forward the cards to them. This kind of scam was highlighted in this column even before virus outbreak.

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Q. Price-gouging may not be a scam, exactly, but is it illegal?

A. Yes, it is, according to the AG’s office, which recently filed a regulation, effective immediately, that “prohibits price gouging of goods and services necessary for public health and safety during a declared statewide or national emergency.”

Q. What examples of price-gouging does the AG cite?

A. The AG’s office says it has received more than 300 complaints about price gouging of consumer products and nearly 100 complaints of price gouging of personal protective equipment. Some examples: a box of eight masks that normally sells for less than $15 selling for $135 on Amazon; a four-pack of toilet paper for $25 on eBay; a local convenience store selling milk for $10 a gallon; a small pharmacy/convenience store selling eight ounces of hand sanitizer for $30; and local stores selling single rolls of toilet paper and paper towel for as much as $5 a roll.

Q. What can the AG do about it?

A. Businesses and sellers that violate the regulation can be ordered to pay restitution and up to $5,000 per violation. Complaints can be filed here. In most cases, being contacted by the AG’s office ends price-gouging.


Got a problem? Send your consumer issue to sean.murphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.