Consumer Protection Tips
As confusion and panic over the impact of COVID-19 grips the country, the opportunities for scammers and fraudsters are multiplying. It’s important to protect one’s financial well-being by remaining on the lookout for scams as well as unfair and deceptive practices in the marketplace, also known as price gouging.
Be cautious of:
- Solicitations for donations, especially phone solicitations, and solicitations asking for bitcoin donations.
- Phishing emails, texts, or social media messages that mention COVID-19 and want you to click on links or attachments. Phishing emails use social engineering to impersonate a trusted entity to dupe a victim into opening an email attachment or clicking on a link. This can result in malware being downloaded onto your device or personal information/money being stolen.
- Advertisements for any products said to prevent, treat or cure COVID-19 (essential oils, colloidal silver, supplements, teas, etc). The Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration have issued warning letters to seven sellers of unapproved and misbranded products, claiming they can treat or prevent COVID-19. The companies’ products include teas, essential oils, and colloidal silver. They have no evidence to back up their claims, as required by law. According to the FDA, there are currently no approved vaccines, drugs, or investigational products available to treat or prevent the virus.
- Exploitation of the stock market crash – Pushy ads for “no-risk” or “guaranteed” financial products like insurance policies, pensions transfers, or high-return investment opportunities.
- Investment scams, especially important to keep in mind in light of the falling stock market. Montana’s commissioner of securities and insurance has resources on this issue.
Remember, the best technique for avoiding phone scams is just don’t answer calls from numbers you don’t recognize. You can’t be scammed by a con artist if you don’t pick up the phone!
What is price gouging?
Simply put, it means outrageous pricing that takes advantage of a crisis to obtain a price a business would not ordinarily be able to demand. Montana law prohibits “unfair” or deceptive acts or practices. Montanans are protected from price gouging under two state laws:
- Violations of MCA 30-14-103 are subject to civil fines of up to $20,000 for willful violations, and criminal sanctions of up to $5,000 and one year in prison.
- Violations of MCA 30-14-205 are subject to criminal penalties of up to five years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
The Montana Department of Justice’s Office of Consumer Protection has authority to enforce civil and criminal violations of these statutes.
For more information or to file a complaint
The Office of Consumer Protection can offer advice and answer questions about offers that seem suspect, so consider contacting them before responding in questionable situations.
Phone: (406) 444-4500
Online complaint form: https://app.doj.mt.gov/apps/Oscar/default.aspx