COVID scams flourish despite efforts of health and law enforcement agencies

Bogus COVID promotions are going strong as frightened consumers seek out and fall prey to sham treatments and cures

Published January 30, 2021 11:59AM (EST)


This story was produced by FairWarning, a nonprofit news organization based in Southern California that focuses on public health, consumer, labor and environmental issues. You can sign up for their newsletter here.

Black Plague tea. Biomagnetism treatment. Ozone therapy.

Although authorities are trying to crack down, bogus Covid-19 promotions like these are still going strong, as frightened consumers seek out and fall prey to sham treatments and cures.

The Justice Department, which reported receiving more than 76,000 tips about coronavirus scams by the fall, has filed at least 33 criminal cases, along with 13 civil actions seeking to halt the sale of fake vaccines, treatments or testing.

"A pandemic is a time when people should come together to pursue the common good,'' said former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen in a press release, "but sadly there are some who instead use it as an opportunity to deceive and thieve.

With the U.S. coronavirus death toll surging past 425,000, genuine vaccines have arrived, though the rollout has been painfully slow. In a country of more than 330 million people, only about 23.5 million have received their first shot, and it will be months before vaccinations are available to everyone.

That has helped pandemic-related frauds to proliferate, keeping health and law enforcement officials busy.

In March, the New York State attorney general ordered televangelist Jim Bakkerto stop claiming that his "Silver Solution" could cure the coronavirus. The U.S. Justice Department brought its first case the same month against the sale of fake "World Health Organization" vaccine kits.

Since then, the department has obtained injunctions against companies like Fusion Health and Pharm Origins in Georgia, which sold unapproved vitamin D products, such as "Immune Shots," that were pitched as treatments for Covid-19. In Dallas, Texas, a person posing as a potential customer recorded claims at a health clinic  that a bogus treatment—ozone therapy—could stop viruses like Covid from spreading through the body. A federal judge ordered the clinic to stop offering unproven treatments.

Some scam artists have been busted for selling dangerous products. In May, Rong Sun, a Georgia woman, pleaded guilty to charges of marketing an unregistered pesticide as a preventive treatment against coronavirus. In Florida, prosecutors took aim at the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing for selling Miracle Mineral Solution, a dangerous product containing bleach.  After the church co-founder Mark Grenon and his sons refused to comply with a court order prohibiting sales, they were arrested in August.

Federal authorities also have obtained restraining orders to shut down hundreds of websites touting fake vaccines, fraudulent charity drives and counterfeit medical supplies. In August, the Justice Department announced that thousands of U.S. consumers had been defrauded by scammers in Vietnam offering hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Purchasers of the products never received them.

In November, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which polices false advertising, got a restraining order against 25 websites that promoted Clorox and Lysol products. Consumers duped into paying for cleaning supplies that never arrived commiserated with each other in comments on an FTC blog post.

"I was also scammed in the Lysol Flash sale… it is very stressful and spent weeks to get my money back," said one commenter.

"Buyer beware!" another commenter wrote, after her shipment of Lysol wipes did not arrive, and the website did not provide a way to cancel the order.

The arrival of real vaccines, an otherwise happy event, has also created new opportunities for conmen. Steven McFarland, CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Southern California, said his office has received complaints about people going door-to-door to offer access to vaccines for a price.

"Nobody is going to give you early access to a vaccine in exchange for money," McFarland said. He added that consumers should also be suspicious of fraudsters pretending to be coronavirus contact tracers who are primarily interested in getting personal information, like Medicare card numbers.

For scams to proliferate during a public health crisis is nothing new. FTC attorney Christine DeLorme said that similar cons popped up after other viral outbreaks like avian flu or Zika. But the length and severity of the pandemic has produced fraud on a different scale.

"The variety we've seen being sold is sort of unprecedented," DeLorme said.

Since the pandemic started, warning letters from the FTC and the Food and Drug Administration to purveyors of vitamins, supplements, colloidal silver and the like have created a gallery of phony promotions.

The FTC has issued more than 350 such letters, DeLorme said, a volume that is "many multiples over anything we've ever done for a given medical condition."

The FDA has issued more than 140 warning letters for fraudulent Covid products, according to its website. The agency has also removed many unapproved products,  such as rapid test kits, through complaints to domain registrars

According to DeLorme, most companies stop making misleading claims after getting a warning letter, and risk being sued if they don't. In October, the FTC settled a case with a California marketer called Whole Leaf Organics that sold an "anti viral wellness booster."

Still, the threat of legal action doesn't stop all dubious promotions. Last month, the FDA sent a warning letter to Dr. Steven F. Hotze, a Texas physician, for marketing vitamin kits for children that he claimed would protect against the coronavirus.

Hotze also penned an op-ed on a Christian news site touting the anti-parasite drug Ivermectin as "highly effective'' in treating Covid-19 infections. Hotze did not respond to a request for comment.

Ivermectin is not approved for the prevention or treatment of Covid, according to the FDA. The agency said in a post on its website that side effects can include stomach pain, seizures, a sudden drop in blood pressure and liver injury.

Hotze is not the only physician accused of peddling unproven remedies, and at least one has faced criminal charges. Last month, a federal grand jury in San Diego indicted Dr. Jennings Ryan Staley on charges stemming from the sale of Covid-19 treatment kits. An attempt to reach his attorney was unsuccessful.

According to the indictment, Staley tried to smuggle hydroxychloroquine powder into the U.S. by mislabeling it as "yam extract." Early in the pandemic, he promoted hydroxychloroquine—an anti-malarial drug once touted by former President Trump—as a "guaranteed" cure for the coronavirus, according to the Justice Department.

By Eli Wolfe


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