By Sarah Richardson
In an exclusive interview with the Clay County Free Press, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said that his office has been busier than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, helping West Virginians deal with a variety of scammers, landlord-tenant disputes, and more issues brought on by the extenuating circumstances of the virus.
In response to the large number of scams, Morrisey, United States Attorney Mike Stuart, and United States Attorney Bill Powell announced the formation of the West Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Task Force earlier this month to identify, investigate and prosecute fraud related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
This task force is a joint federal and state partnership led by a Deputy West Virginia Attorney General, and Assistant United States Attorneys from both the Southern and Northern Districts of West Virginia, in partnership with experienced fraud investigators from the West Virginia Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)-Criminal Investigation and the West Virginia State Police.
“Since the Governor’s declaration, our Consumer Protection Division and its investigators have fielded hundreds of reports from those faced with price gouging, landlord-tenant issues and vacation/event cancellations,” Morrisey said. “The Consumer Protection Division has already sent multiple warning letters to businesses on enforcement matters. These are unparalleled times in which we live, and that’s why I am honored to join forces with U.S. Attorneys Bill Powell and Mike Stuart, as together, by combining the investigative and civil enforcement powers of the state Attorney General’s Office with the criminal prosecutorial authority of the federal government, our state is very well positioned to protect its citizens in this time of peril.”
Some examples of coronavirus and COVID-19 scams include:
-Treatment scams: Scammers are offering to sell fake cures, vaccines, and advice on unproven treatments for COVID-19.
-Supply scams: Scammers are creating fake shops, websites, social media accounts, and email addresses claiming to sell medical supplies currently in high demand, such as surgical masks. When consumers attempt to purchase supplies through these channels, fraudsters pocket the money and never provide the promised supplies.
-Provider scams: Scammers are also contacting people by phone and email, pretending to be doctors and hospitals that have treated a friend or relative for COVID-19, and demanding payment for that treatment.
-Charity scams: Scammers are soliciting donations for individuals, groups, and areas affected by COVID-19.
-Phishing scams: Scammers posing as national and global health authorities, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are sending phishing emails designed to trick recipients into downloading malware or providing personal identifying and financial information.
-App scams: Scammers are also creating and manipulating mobile apps designed to track the spread of COVID-19 to insert malware that will compromise users’ devices and personal information.
-Investment scams: Scammers are offering online promotions on various platforms, including social media, claiming that the products or services of publicly traded companies can prevent, detect, or cure COVID-19, and that the stock of these companies will dramatically increase in value as a result. These promotions are often styled as “research reports,” make predictions of a specific “target price,” and relate to microcap stocks, or low-priced stocks issued by the smallest of companies with limited publicly available information.
-Price Gouging scams: Individuals and businesses may sell essential goods, like hand sanitizer, for significantly higher prices than in a non-emergency setting. It is legally considered price gouging when the price of one of these products increases more than 10 percent its price in effect 10 days prior to an emergency declaration.
Along with preventing scammers from taking advantage of West Virginians, the Attorney General’s office is also urging consumers to be wary of impostors who may threaten to shutoff utility services, even as several public utilities have suspended terminations for nonpayment.
The state’s largest utilities including American Electric Power, First Energy, Dominion Energy and West Virginia American Water are among others that have announced a suspension of utility shutoffs as consumers cope with fallout from the pandemic.
Impostors use the name of recognizable utilities and the threat of disconnects to steal the consumer’s money or personal, identifiable information. One consumer lost $2,500.
Unjust evictions are also being handled by Morrisey’s office, and while there is no law preventing eviction during a state of emergency, laws do provide for due process and protect tenants from unfair eviction.
West Virginia law prohibits unfair or deceptive conduct and has strict laws to protect tenants from unjust eviction. This requires property owners to file a petition for eviction in magistrate or circuit court regarding nonpayment or violation of the lease. The landlord cannot evict or lock out the tenant, shut off utilities or do other things to evict a tenant without going to court. The tenant must be served with notice of the court hearing and have the right to contest any eviction.
“Many workers understandably have deep concerns about keeping a roof over their families’ heads,” Morrisey said. “I get that landlords and property managers have a bottom line, but in this crisis, we must unite and work with one another. Now is neither the time nor the place to play on people’s fears with threats of eviction. To do so is frankly unconscionable.”
Morrisey urges all West Virginian’s to report scams, price gouging, and other matters by which bad actors may try to take advantage of consumers during the COVID-19 pandemic by calling state’s Consumer Protection Hotline at 1-800-368-8808. Written complaints can be filed at www.wvago.gov.