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In preparation for COVID-19 scams, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) launched Operation Stolen Promise, which targets coronavirus-related fraud and aims to shut down counterfeit medical supplies and bogus pharmaceuticals.
Robert Hammer, acting special agent in charge for HSI Atlanta, spoke exclusively to AJC.com about the operation, agents’ tactics and the best practices for Georgians to protect themselves from these scams.
Here’s what he had to say.
Q: At what point did fake merchandise and other COVID-19 schemes catch the attention of the Department of Homeland Security?
Hammer: That's something that we've really been strong at and focused on ever since the inception of the agency.
Regardless of the scheme or the threat or the criminal organization, there’s always somebody trying to illegally import things. Criminals are opportunistic people and organizations, and COVID-19 is the current threat. So what we see is that they are trying to exploit the American consumer by importing things related to COVID-19 now.
Fortunately, we’ve been postured since the inception of the agency to be able to deal with this, so this is just a different flavor of threat.
Q: What prompted the launch of this specific program? What does it aim to accomplish?
Hammer: I think the important thing about Operation Stolen Promise is it is an outward-facing campaign that really demonstrates to the public two things:
One is that law enforcement is there in a unified fashion to respond to this national pandemic to try to protect the American consumer from fraudulent goods coming into the United States, which we have seen in Georgia. These goods have put the health and safety of the public at risk. We’re there as a show of force to stop this.
Also, this campaign helps educate the American consumer from making some of these mistakes, by falling victim to some of these scams. We really view this as not only an enforcement strategy but also an education strategy to try to shut down the demand of these products.
Q: How local are these scams? Are these bad actors in Atlanta or are they operating elsewhere in the U.S. or internationally?
Hammer: All of the above, unfortunately. So we have your foreign actors, we have people opening websites all over the world trying to get financial gain from COVID-19 solutions and we have people locally that are profiting.
As we’ve seen in some case examples, we’ve had indications of price gouging, hording and illegal importation of products that are not safe for people but they’re being advertised to keep COVID-19 away. We’ve got a lot of scams going on.
Q: What products or illicit merchandise are these vendors peddling?
Hammer: We have a lot of different categories of that.
One of the biggest scams that we’ve seen is fraudulent test kits. Especially before this COVID-19 thing ramped up and before testing was regularly available, a lot of folks got online and started creating fictitious websites to advertise that they could buy COVID-19 test kits and that they would mail you a test kit. We were intercepting by the thousands COVID-19 test kits coming in from foreign that were not FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) approved test kits.
There’s a risk there. If you stick something in the back of your nose, what are you sticking in the back of your nose if it’s not approved by the FDA? And even if it did you no harm — if it told you that you were negative when you were positive or that you were positive when you were really negative — what is the emotional impact of that? What is the second-order effects of that? There’s a lot of problems that can come about from someone using an unauthorized test kit. That’s one of the big things that we’ve seen.
You saw recently the arrest of the local eBay vendor that we had here in Georgia that was importing these insecticides that you would wear around your neck as some sort of protection ring around your body that would stop the virus from coming into your body. So we’ve had some of that.
We’ve had hoarding, we’ve had gouging, we’ve had people selling N95 masks for 14 or 20 times what the normal rate of those masks are.
Q: What scams or schemes are kind of popping up right now?
Hammer: I don't want to tip my hand on what we're seeing — that would make it harder for us to be effective as law enforcement if we tipped our hand and let the bad guys know that we know where they're going.
I would say that the current trends that are evolving are in media and in the news that the consumer sees. Those are driving other avenues of fraud. It all comes down to this: Americans right now are looking for a sign of hope. They’re desperate for anything.
The criminals are capturing on that, and they’re exploiting that desire, that hope that Americans want right now. It’s a shame, but criminals are great at exploiting people in desperate situations.
Q: Is there any way to say the specific groups that these scammers are targeting?
Hammer: We've seen some elder care fraud, but I don't really know if it was targeted that way. We've had a lot of elderly individuals who have fallen victim to some of these COVID-19 test fraud scams. I'm not sure that they were targeted, but we have seen statistically higher incidents of the elderly population ordering some of these test kits online.
Q: Is there a way to quantify the number of people in metro Atlanta or just in general who may have been affected by these scams up to this point?
Hammer: When we get into businesses that are selling items on the internet by the thousands and when we get into local businesses that are hoarding masks by the thousands, it's hard to know. We haven't been able to put in the public domain yet an actual quantifiable number behind that.
I would say that the number of sales is definitely indicative of the number of victims. I would easily feel comfortable saying, maybe not necessarily in Georgia, but in general what we have seen as a cumulative number by all of the folks that we have arrested that they have victimized easily more than a thousand folks.
Q: It seems like everyone has gotten a scam call or a phishing email at some point. Do those bake into these schemes?
Hammer: Absolutely. As I've said, criminals are creatures of opportunity, and they're not a one-track organization. They're going to try everything that they can, whether that be unsolicited emails, unsolicited calls, setting up websites, word of mouth in the local community or whatever the case may be. They're going to try to get the fraud out there using as many methods as they can.
Q: Often these bad actors pretend to be law enforcement agents themselves. Is there a way for the average person to be able to tell if someone claiming to be with law enforcement isn’t actually who they say they are?
Hammer: If I receive a call from somebody claiming to be in law enforcement, and I've never dealt with that individual, the easiest thing for me to do is pick up the phone and call them back at the general number for the agency that they say that they work at.
Generally, you need to make sure that government websites end in “.gov.” Look at the websites and look at the email addresses, especially email addresses. It is very, very rare — I would say I’ve almost never seen this in my career — that we in law enforcement in an unsolicited fashion email someone out of the blue.
Where did we get their email address from? How do we know that’s their email address? We don’t have some massive database of everybody’s email address and we just email them instead of calling them.
Q: What are some red flags that people need to keep in mind when shopping for these products that are commonly fraudulent.
Hammer: Buy from a reputable seller. What does that mean? That means your traditional big box stores. Would you buy your pharmaceuticals for your mother from a guy behind a back alley, or would you buy it from a CVS or Walgreens?
Buying from an unrecognized website or an overseas website that claims that it will ship you some medicine, that’s the equivalent of buying medicine in a back alley from a guy out of a van.
The consumer needs to be smart. They need to be looking at reputable vendors. They need to look at the reviews, independent reviews if they are not big store names that can be recognized. Before you hit that send button and before you provide them information, make sure that you’re verifying who you are dealing with.
Q: If someone comes across something COVID-19 related online that they think is potentially fraudulent — let’s say an online listing or a website for example — what should they do?
Hammer: We have a team set up nationally that is monitoring — again, they are scanning all the websites online — but they are also going through all the tips and leads that are coming in from the public. What you may see may tie into something that thousands of other people have seen. It may tie into an ongoing criminal investigation that we have. And that team up there that we set up specifically for COVID-19 fraud is able to link those things together.
That’s just an email away at email@example.com.