Con artists are trying to take advantage of people who are living under the fear of the COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that is spreading throughout Ohio and the world.

“This is a scammer’s paradise right now because it’s a perfect storm,” said Sue McConnell, president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Better Business Bureau. Over the last two weeks BBB has seen a sharp increase in the number of COVID-19 related scams, she said.

Ms. McConnell said that everyone shares a common concern about COVID-19 and people are isolated from each other due to the state order for all Ohio residents to stay at home. People are stressed and scared, she said, creating an ideal situation for scammers.

She noted a variety of scams that have been reported to the BBB, such as government agency scams, utility disconnect scams, alleged foreign nationals requesting money, misinformation about vaccines, COVID-19 charities and persons claiming to offer door-to-door tests for the virus.

The Greater Cleveland BBB serves five counties: Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Ashtabula and Lorain counties. With scam reported in all areas.

Ms. McConnell said people who have been laid off due to business closing may be more vulnerable to scams. Scammers, for example, may call people asking for their Social Security or bank account deposit numbers in reference to President Donald Trump’s proposal to direct $1,000 payments to Americans feeling the economic impact of the virus. The government would never distribute money in this way.

Although no such scams have been reported in Moreland Hills, Lt. Todd Deitzel said that criminals are opportunistic and will prey upon people during this time. He advised that the government or banks would not call you to solicit money and warned people not to do business with people who go door to door.

“The criminal element knows no bounds,” he said on Friday.

Americans are also looking for medical supplies, such as the N95 respirator, in addition to gloves, rubbing alcohol, hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes and more. With just about everyone now staying home and doing more internet shopping, “you’re seeing a lot of fraudulent online sites,” Ms. McConnell said.

BBB does have a scam tracker at bbb.org/scamtracker, but COVID-19 was just entered as an option on the website. Therefore, not many scams have been coded with that keyword yet. The bureau, however, has been receiving many phone calls about COVID-19 related scams.

Some consumers have received a call or text from someone claiming to work with Dominion Energy saying that their utilities will be cut off “because of coronavirus.” Others have received an email from a “foreign national” quarantined with COVID-19 asking for help accessing their bank funds in the United States. Ms. McConnell also informed consumers that there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19 that is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“When we see reports come in, that’s the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “We look at this as a barometer of the bigger picture of what’s happening.”

Ms. McConnell offered three pieces of advice to avoid falling victim to a scam. First, she advised consumers to research products and services and not make decisions out of fear. Second, she said to be wary of testimonials and products that claim to cure any disease. Third, she advised against “all natural” products because they may not be safe or tested by the FDA.

South Russell Police Chief Michael Rizzo said that the village also did not have any reported scams yet, but often people wait longer than they should to file a report.

“The primary mistake is that residents don’t call until hours or days or a week later,” he said on Friday. “When someone is in the area and you want something checked out, we will come out anytime for a suspicious situation.”

Geauga County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Thomas Rowan said the department will warn residents about any active scams on the department’s Facebook page.

Julie Hullett has been a reporter for the Chagrin Valley Times since August of 2018 and covers Gates Mills, Hunting Valley, Moreland Hills, Orange, Pepper Pike and Woodmere. She graduated from John Carroll University with a journalism degree in 2018.

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