While safety in coronavirus times may mean staying indoors and washing your hands for 20 seconds, protecting against outbreak-related scams should also be on the priority list.
And now top Santa Clara County officials are tracking those potential scams amid the COVID-19 pandemic and warning residents — who are already grappling with isolation, fear and loss of income — to be aware.
Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Tiyen Lin told San José Spotlight his office has received roughly 40 price gouging complaints, ranging from overpriced toilet paper to pricey hand sanitizer and other essential items people need during the crisis.
“Any place that there’s a market for these things, people are complaining about high prices,” Lin said.
As shelter in place orders were enacted just a few weeks ago, there is no data yet to show how widespread the scams are. The DA’s office is working on “logging” and “reviewing” at this point, Lin said.
“If it’s determined to be price gouging, there’s one track of pursuing misdemeanor charges for the most egregious (cases),” Lin continued. “If it’s to a lesser point… it depends on the number and the seriousness of the price gouging. We might send a letter to warn them and then follow up with further inspections.”
Santa Clara County’s Public Health Department also recently put out warnings of scammers posing as medical and law enforcement personnel via Facebook. The scammers, officials said, may attempt to “solicit money, gain entry into your home, or (ask) you to divulge private and personal information about your health or finances.”
While price-gouging and impersonation scams are most prevalent after a disaster, Lin said his office has not seen such complaints yet.
“I know early on there were reports of that,” Lin said. “And then, it was debunked as a kind of myth that was going on.”
Scams and disasters, unfortunately, almost always go hand in hand. The number of scams after Hurricane Katrina were so bad that the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) was established with insurance fraud schemes following in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
How to protect yourself
The most important thing consumers can do to protect themselves, Lin said, is immediately report all price gouging occurrences to the District Attorney’s Office.
“If consumers witness what they believe to be price gouging, when they report, it’s logged and tracked,” Lin said. “Through enough complaints about a particular business, that’s going to warrant follow up.”
Consumers can report to Santa Clara County’s Consumer Protection Unit by calling (408) 792-2880 or emailing [email protected].