FBI, FDA warn of COVID-19 vaccine and cure scams
Here’s what you need to know to avoid being taken advantage of by scammers.
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Scams are hardwired into Florida’s DNA. The tradition of land swindling dates back more than two centuries — even the Marquis de Lafayette came to grief. There have been con men and snake oil sellers, Lonely Hearts honeytraps and people making dubious claims about supernatural gifts and .driveway sealants.
But that history utterly pales in comparison to the magnitude of trickery aimed at Florida today. And unlike decades past, the threats are coming from around the globe, often untraceable and seemingly far beyond justice.
Name almost any kind of fraud or chicanery, and you’ll find Floridians falling victim to it — sometimes by the thousands. In 2020, FBI statistics show that 53,793 Florida residents were victims of some kind of Internet fraud. The agency also projects that state residents lost nearly $300 million to Internet scams, and that figure doesn’t include some categoriStories es of phone-based fraud. Other federal agencies and analytics professionals tally fraud in different ways, but all agree that Florida is a top target, with tens of thousands of victims and hundreds of millions in damages.
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Floridians are getting smarter about the most common tricks used by scammers. Cell-phone owners are now familiar with the concept of “spoofing,” where caller ID information is hacked to make it appear that a call is coming from a local source or a trusted business. And many are inured to the relentless phone calls from people pretending to sell car warranties, remotely fix computers that aren’t broken and “resolve” problems with Social Security. Online, many have learned to mistrust ads that promise sought-after goods for unbelievably low prices, or be wary of friend requests on social media that ape the profiles of real people.
But that distrust also carries a cost. Legitimate businesses say their ability to communicate with their customer base is threatened by the mistrust generated by phone and internet scams. And consumers sometimes miss important information because they’ve stopped answering unknown numbers and their email inboxes are stuffed with distracting junk.
The bottom line is this: For most Americans, two very necessary means of communication — their internet and mobile phone — have been co-opted and corrupted to an unacceptable level. They’re paying for services they can’t use to their fullest extent because scammers have been able to run amok. The state and federal governments should work together to turn this around.
Get out the information
State leaders can start by making sure Floridians have the latest information about how common scams work, and about patterns to watch out for as new ripoffs emerge.
Here, we have to give all three members of Florida’s elected Cabinet credit. Attorney General Ashley Moody, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis all devote big sections of their official websites to fraud-prevention efforts. It’s a lot of information, and while some of it is duplicated on two or more sites, most of is not.
Unfortunately, there’s a downside to that. A state resident who goes looking for information about fraud and scams in Florida will almost certainly stumble on one of the sites. But would they keep looking? Or would they assume they’d come across the state’s one, official source of information? It would be a reasonable assumption, given that the sites don’t even appear to link to each other, at least not in a prominent way.
It may be asking a lot — given that Fried, Florida’s lone elected Democrat, is often at odds with her fellow Cabinet members, and that Patronis and Moody don’t seem to collaborate very often. But it would make a great deal of sense to compile all the useful information about recognizing, avoiding and reporting scams on one, centrally managed website.
Beef up prosecution
Federal authorities go after big cases with gusto — as we’ll discuss later. But Florida officials also have a role to play in bringing scammers to justice.
Traditionally, many state and local agencies have shied away from working big, complicated fraud cases. But Florida law enforcement can work with individual victims, helping them access resources and working cases that might not be big enough to merit federal attention.
They can also band together to maximize the resources and clout, the way they’ve done on drug task forces and other priorities. Local officials are also better equipped to spot patterns in local cases — for example, in Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced plans last month to join forces in fighting real estate fraud.
Invest in technology and innovation
To date, law enforcement has had limited success in shutting down scams. As soon as one pathway to fraud is shut down, criminals always seem to find another. The best way to fight that is through big-picture security measures that block scammers’ access to the platforms they use the most — email, social media, phone calls and text messages.
The Federal Communication Commission is working toward just that kind of breakthrough. In March, it announced a $225 million fine against Texas-based telemarketers who made more than 1 billion auto-dialled “robocalls,” pretending to represent big insurance firms such as Blue Cross Blue Shield. It was a mighty blow — but at the same time, the FCC said it was forming an anti-robocall task force and requiring the nation’s biggest cellphone companies to report illegal calls and detail their efforts to block them. Federal officials are also leaning on phone carriers to help fight spoofing and do a better job of blocking calls that are almost certainly fraudulent.
Involving the private sector is smart — but innovation might come faster if the stick were combined with a carrot, in the form of prizes and honors for companies and individuals who develop scam-busting technology.
This is probably more of a federal role, though Florida leaders can help by encouraging and funding university-based research into security.
For too long, state officials treated Florida scams like Florida weather — it was something that happened, and residents just needed to learn to deal with it. It’s good to see that state and local officials have beefed up their efforts to attack fraud. There’s a lot they can do, so we hope they keep trying.
Top five scams in Florida
(By number of victims, according to the FBI. Some victims fall into multiple categories):
7,742 Non-payment/Non-Delivery: This category includes both sides of the same coin: Scamming buyers that take possession of merchandise without paying for it, or scamming sellers who take payment for merchandise but never deliver it. Losses: $27 million
6,334 Identity Theft/Account takeover Forging someone’s identity and setting up new accounts or breaking into existing accounts. Losses: $42 million
5,079 Extortion: Extracting money from someone by threats, including violence or prosecution. Losses: $4 million
3,862 Personal Data Breach The release of personal information from a source that should be secure, such as bank records or retail outlets. Losses: $12.5 million
2,003 Spoofing Gaining someone’s trust by making them believe a call or email is coming from a trusted source.Losses: $8.7 million.