Consumer complaints about COVID-19 fraud pass 200,000

Media Contacts
Lucy Baker

Recap of actions by 15 federal agencies and tips to avoid fraud

U.S. PIRG Education Fund

WASHINGTON — Consumer complaints to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) related to the coronavirus exceeded 200,000 on Thursday, Sept. 17, with a total of more than $140 million in fraud losses. Since the novel coronavirus outbreak began, the top complaint categories have been related to online shopping, travel, credit cards, banks and lenders, and credit bureaus.

U.S. PIRG Education Fund has continued to document the actions taken by the FTC and 14 other federal agencies in response to coronavirus scams. Those actions include the FTC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sending more than 420 warning letters, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) suspending stock trading for 37 companies, and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) shutting down thousands of malicious web domains and email addresses. 

Lucy Baker, U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s Consumer Program Associate, issued the following statement in response:

“While people are scared about their health and finances, con artists are having a field day.” 

“Consumers have reported more than $140 million in losses to the FTC, and there have been more than 200,000 total complaints about these scams as of Thursday.” 

The New York Times coronavirus tracker says May 27 — the peak of daily scam complaints — was in the middle of a relative lull in new infections. Case numbers started to rise again in late June and early July. 

“Since the onset of the pandemic, news outlets, government agencies (such as the FDA, with its Quack Hack campaign), and organizations including ours and AARP have warned the public and/or published guides on how to avoid scams related to COVID-19 and in general. That could have made Americans more wary of a variety of common cons such as suspicious phone calls or promises of ‘fast stimulus money‘ which only leads them to a used car salesman.

The government should wield every tool at its disposal against scammers. Department of Justice (DOJ) press releases have touted both criminal and civil legal actions brought against parties accused of fraud related to COVID-19 products and services. That includes health care benefits fraud, fake disease treatments and the sale of nonexistent medical supplies. 

“We all need to be on our guard. Before you click, pause first. Do your research and ask yourself if that website, email, text, direct message or call is legit. Be wary of handing over your money or personal information.”



How to report coronavirus-related scams

  • The DOJ’s National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) Hotline can be reached at 1-866-720-5721 and through an online complaint form, which also includes a list of other agencies where complaints can be filed.

  • The FTC’s complaint form is available here.

How you can protect yourself from scams

  • U.S. PIRG Education Fund has developed a series of tips to help consumers facing these and other problems during COVID-19. 

Actions taken by federal agencies against coronavirus scams 

First published May 20, 2020; Updated September 16, 2020 

Actions taken by federal agencies against coronavirus scams include:

Bogus or non-existent products and opportunities

  • The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has started a new campaign they’ve nicknamed “Quack Hack” which has sent 98 warning letters to companies for marketing products with fraudulent COVID-19 prevention and treatment claims, including for colloidal silver, cannabidiol (CBD) and other products making vague immune boosting and antiviral claims. Eighty-two of those letters were joint letters with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

  • The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has sent 334 warning letters for deceptive or unfounded health claims and, in some cases, claims about earning potential from multilevel marketing companies

  • The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and FTC have sent seven joint warning letters to companies about illegal coronavirus-related telemarketing calls. The FTC sent an additional nine letters on its own. 

  • The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has temporarily suspended the trading of stock for 37 companies in connection with questionable COVID-19 claims, including some about tests and disinfectants. The SEC has also been keeping an eye on “pump and dump” schemes, where people who own stock promote false, optimistic  rumors about the company, and then sell their stock before the rumors are exposed. 

  • The Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) has opened at least 315 investigations, seized more than $7.9 million in illicit proceeds, made 59 arrests, analyzed more than 554,374 COVID-19 domain names, and worked with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to seize 969 shipments of illegal COVID-19 test kits, purported treatments and personal protective equipment (PPE).

  • Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has seized more than 10 million unapproved face masks, 120,000 COVID-19 test kits, 4,000 FDA-prohibited antibiotics, and 3,000 EPA prohibited lanyards. 

  • Actions taken by the Department of Justice (DOJ) include:

    • Creating the COVID-19 Hoarding and Price Gouging Task Force

    • Distributing, with Health and Human Services (HHS), more than half a million medical supplies confiscated from price gougers.

    • Coordinating partnerships, task forces or other cooperative efforts with federal, state and local agencies to tackle COVID-19-related fraud. A review of DOJ press releases indicates such efforts of varying arrangements in at least 17 states.

    • Bringing criminal charges against fraud. Our review of DOJ press releases found at least 14 charges against fraud related to COVID-19 products and services, including health care benefits fraud, fake treatments and the sale of nonexistent medical supplies. DOJ has coordinated with different agencies on these cases, including the Department of Defense (DOD), FDA, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), HHS, HSI, Secret Service, U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) and Veterans Affairs (VA).

    • Taking civil actions. Our review of DOJ press releases found at least nine civil actions to stop fraudulent websites and halt the unlawful sales of sham treatments. For these cases, DOJ has coordinated with one or more of the following: the FBI, FDA, HHS, HSI, and Secret Service.

Impersonation/phishing scams

  • The Secret Service is investigating an unemployment benefits fraud ring.

  • The Secret Service is alerting health care facilities about vulnerabilities in their network that make them susceptible to ransomware. Seventeen hospitals and health care facilities have been identified as potential targets.

  • The Small Business Administration (SBA) and FTC issued eight warning letters to companies whose marketing may mislead small businesses into thinking they can apply for official COVID-19 relief programs. Nine institutions have reported to the SBA that they suspect that fraudulent transactions have cost a combined total of $187.3 million. 

  • The FTC filed a civil action against a company posing as an approved lender for a federal coronavirus relief lending program.

  • The DOJ disrupted hundreds of online COVID-19 scams, including a site pretending to collect donations for the American Red Cross and sites spoofing government programs such as the IRS stimulus checks initiative. 

  • The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) identified and blocked more than 3,500 coronavirus-related malicious web domains and email addresses. They’re also tracking an unknown malicious cyber actor who is sending out phishing emails pretending to be the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) COVID-19 loan relief webpage.