Avoiding scams and catching the scamming scammers

The Federal Trade Commission and other authorities warn of a range of COVID-19 related scams.

Mikkel Pates

Officials are warning that the COVID-19 crisis will create a flush of scams across the country, coming to a phone near you.

Recently, I read about a group of fraudsters that set up a fake “pop-up” testing booth, in Louisville, Ky., offering to charge the public $240 each for COVID-19 “tests.” The Federal Trade Commission is warning about a range of scams. They urge not responding to texts, emails or phone calls about checks from the government.

They say to ignore online offers for vaccinations or home test kits. The FBI National Press Office warns of cryptocurrency-related fraud schemes.

I’ve developed a heightened interest in scams after covering the remarkable case of Hunter Brian Hanson, the Sheyenne, N.D., grain trader who at age 20 started gathering steam to trade $23 million (his estimate) in grain trades. Hanson ended up owing $8 million to $11 million to unsuspecting elevators and farmers.

The AARP Bulletin national magazine in its April 2020 cover story has a special report titled: “Fraud International: It's Vast, Organized and Growing.” It’s by investigative journalist Bethany McLean, born in Hibbing, Minn., who wrote the book, “The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron.” McLean points out that we tend to think about lone wolves like Hanson.


McLean describes a world of sophisticated schemes, with multiple players who are cooperatively used in various schemes, where their talents are needed. She describes cases in which one fraudster will have the audacity to sue the other for stealing their fraud techniques and materials.

It was refreshing to see she’d quoted Nick Chase, a Fargo, N.D.-based assistant U.S. attorney, who I've covered in federal court. Chase worked on a lottery scam. In it, prosecutors went after “mules,” people who are paid to transport money for Lavrick Willocks of Jamaica, who used a lottery scam to bilk 100 older Americans in 31 states out of more than $6 million.

Chase said he used to think “mules” were small fish and shouldn’t bother with them,” Chase said. Now he thinks it’s necessary because they’re “often in America” and “the person you can get your hands on.”

The FBI has lots of advice to avoid fraud just now:

  • Don’t fall prey to fake blackmail. Fraudsters can e-mail or send letters claiming access to personal information or knowledge of “dirty secrets.” They can demand payment in Bitcoin to prevent release of this information. The new wrinkle is that they’ll infect you and/or your family with coronavirus unless you send payment to their Bitcoin wallet.

  • Don’t let a scammer induce you to accept a “donation” of funds and then to deposit that into a crypto kiosk. This makes you an illegal money mule.

  • Don’t pay money to get a job or get fooled by fake “Census Bureau” workers who improperly ask for Social Security numbers or donations. Don’t give Medicare information to anyone other than a trusted medical provider.

And one more thing: Don’t fall for anyone selling a COVID-19 vaccine.
Ting-a-ling: No vaccine exists. Yet.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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