WASHINGTON, D.C. –
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is keeping the Federal Trade Commission busy.
Andrew Smith, who is the bureau of consumer protection director at the FTC, testified at a U.S. Senate hearing on Tuesday. Smith said that to date, the FTC has received more than 131,419 consumer complaints related to COVID-19, including complaints about the government’s economic impact payments.
According to the testimony Smith offered to the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Manufacturing, Trade, and Consumer Protection, the FTC has been monitoring consumer complaints and the marketplace for a variety of scams related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He explained how scammers are seeking to take advantage of the pandemic in a variety of ways, including unsubstantiated health claims, robocalls, privacy and data security concerns, sham charities, online shopping fraud, phishing scams, work-at-home scams, credit scams and fake mortgage and student loan relief schemes.
“Alongside the health concerns presented by COVID-19, many consumers are facing substantial economic and financial hardships because of the pandemic,” Smith told the federal lawmakers. “These are also dire times for small businesses. The FTC has been on the lookout for frauds targeting financially vulnerable consumers and small businesses and is pursuing warning letters and law enforcement to protect them from further financial harm.
“Millions of American consumers lost their jobs because of the pandemic,” he continued. “With families to support, many consumers are seeking alternative ways to make money. We have redoubled our efforts to identify scam business opportunities that look better than they are.
“The FTC also recognizes that the financial hardships caused by the pandemic are not just limited to consumers,” Smith went on to say. “Small businesses have sought out relief and loans through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) or other programs authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.”
As of this week, Smith indicated the FTC and the Small Business Administration have issued eight warning letters to companies making claims that could lead consumers and small businesses to believe these companies are somehow affiliated with the SBA, that consumers and small businesses could get Payroll Protection Program loans by applying on their website, or otherwise misleading small business about federal loans or other temporary small business relief.
“As with deceptive health claims, the FTC believes that the fastest way to take down these false claims is by issuing warning letters. However, as always, in some cases, the FTC will pursue law enforcement,” Smith said in reference to the FTC filing a complaint on April 17 against one such company posing as an approved PPP lender.
“The FTC will continue to monitor the marketplace and will take action where appropriate to combat such frauds,” he added.
Smith closed his prepared testimony by reiterating the FTC’s objectives.
“The commission appreciates Congress’s confidence in the FTC’s ability to protect consumers, especially with the unique challenges presented by the current COVID-19 pandemic. Through our enforcement, education, and policy efforts, we will continue to ensure that your confidence is well placed,” Smith said.