Scammers working overtime during COVID crisis, Pa. attorney general says

Ron Devlin, Reading Eagle, Pa.
·3 min read

Mar. 2—Although unemployment is pervasive, scammers are working overtime amid the coronavirus crisis, Attorney General Josh Shapiro said Monday night in a telephone town hall hosted by U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan.

"There has been an uptick in scams during the pandemic," Shapiro said during the 45-minute session. "The elderly are the most vulnerable, but everyone is at risk."

Houlahan, a Chester County Democrat, convened the telephone conference on the heels of a recent report from the Federal Trade Commission showing a dramatic increase in scams during the crisis.

The FTC, which monitors consumer fraud, received 4.7 million reports of scams in 2020.

That's an increase of 1.5 million, or 32 percent, over 2019. The agency estimates consumer losses around $3.3 billion.

Most vulnerable are people in the over-60 age group, which the FTC estimates lost $56 million to coronavirus related scams.

As of Feb. 10, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security seized about $33 million from scams that sold counterfeit N95 masks.

Responding to questions from callers, Shapiro advised recipients to never give money, personal information or financial information on an unsolicited phone call.

Never pay solicitations with gift cards, he said, which are untraceable and make it more difficult for law enforcement officers to do their job.

The Social Security Administration and Internal Revenue Service, he emphasized, do not make unsolicited calls.

Responding to a 73-year-old Coatesville man's query about how to verify a call came from Social Security, Shapiro said the agency would provide a PIN that would enable the recipient to verify the caller was legitimate.

Shapiro cautioned against calls that ask recipients to pay for the COVID-19 vaccine, which is free. He also warned of the so-called Jamaican Lottery scam, where callers notify recipients they won the lottery but have to pay the taxes before collecting the money.

His office, Shapiro said, recently broke up a Pittsburgh-based lottery scam.

Houlahan, who represents Chester County and parts of Berks County, said she will co-sponsor legislation that allows telephone carriers to offer call-blocking services at no charge to customers.

Similar legislation passed the House but not the Senate in the last session. With a Democratic majority in the Senate, Houlahan suggested it has a better chance of becoming law in the current session.

Shapiro said his office is working with the Federal Communications Commission to strengthen laws against "spoofing," calls where scammers disguise themselves by using local phone numbers as a cover.

People who believe they have been a victim of a scam, Shapiro said, can report it at scams@attorneygeneral.gov.

Not all of the questions from callers involved scams.

One caller asked Houlahan what could be done to improve distribution of coronavirus vaccine in Berks and Chester counties.

On Monday, Houlahan said, she expressed concern about vaccine distribution during a call to Gov. Wolf's office. She is among four members of Congress to stress the importance of the issue in a letter to Gov. Wolf, and has voiced similar concerns to President Biden's staff.

"I don't believe Pennsylvania is getting its fair share of vaccine," said Houlahan, who based her conclusion on the state's population, prevalence of the disease and the number of deaths due to COVID-19.

The good news, Houlahan said, is that she believes Pennsylvania is in line to receive 80,000 to 90,000 doses of the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine.