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TRENTON – New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal hosted a virtual town hall May 19 to address different types of fraud exploiting people’s fear of the coronavirus and the vulnerable positions it has left many Americans in.
“We’ve seen some really unconscionable conduct in the wake of COVID-19, where unscrupulous people are trying to profit off the misery, suffering and fear of others,” said Grewal.
The attorney general hosted a four-person panel of officials from around the state. Besides exposing the types of fraud, they gave strategies to combat them.
Craig Carpenito, the United States attorney for New Jersey, mentioned mislabeled medical supplies and price gouging, as problems when keeping frontline workers safe. Carpenito said fake N95 masks are coming from overseas into cities with major ports. Some only filter 70%, which is no better than putting a piece of cloth over your mouth, according to Carpenito.
“That is where the real danger lies,” said Carpenito.
The U.S. attorney also added that some price gougers have markups as high as 700%. While in low volumes, the products may still be affordable. Carpenito says this is taking huge tolls on hospitals that have to order supplies.
A $300 thousand PPE purchase, which usually lasts several months, becomes a $2 million purchase for hospitals, Carpenito said.
Another way fraudsters are taking advantage of the coronavirus is by tailoring existing scams to exacerbate people’s fears. One is the “grandparent scam,” in which fraudsters prey on the elderly by impersonating their grandchildren and ask for money.
Christopher Gramiccioni, prosecutor, Monmouth County, said these scammers are now using the tough economic conditions caused by the virus to curry more sympathy from the unsuspecting grandparent.
Gramiccioni said having savings, trust from a different generation, and limited experience in technology makes elders a particular target.
“Those three combinations of things create a good opportunity for a charlatan to take advantage of people, especially during the pandemic,” he said.
Several panelists agreed that the best way to stop these scams is to ask the caller questions.
“Fraudsters do not like inquisitive minds,” Carpenito said.
“When I would go talk to senior citizens about elder fraud and raise these issues, I would just say, ‘hey, if you think it’s your grandson, ask another question. Ask about his sibling. Ask about a family pet. Just ask something to put that fraudster on the defensive,'” Grewal said.
“I think nine times out of 10, that pushes that fraudster away. I think that’s a pretty good tactic to keep in mind,” he added.
Tracy Thompson, the acting insurance fraud prosecutor, spoke of another scam, in which fake testing centers are being set up to collect money and personal information while providing false or no results.
“People go into what purports to be a tent set up by a pharmacy, and if you pay in cash or give your Medicaid or insurance information, you’ll be given a finger-prick blood test and the results in ten minutes,” Thompson explained.
In these scenarios, the scammers get valuable personal information from the forms you fill out to sign up.
Paul Rodriguez, acting director, New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, said phone scammers are using similar tactics, calling and asking personal information to set up bogus tests. He said others are posing as unemployment offices or treasury department officials, preying on people desperate to get their government relief money.
“Use your most valuable asset, which is your common sense,” said Carpenito.
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