Originally on Carolina Public Press

April 6, 2020

Scammers are already positioning to exploit North Carolina residents as they receive stimulus checks as part of the federal coronavirus response, Attorney General Josh Stein told Carolina Public Press in a phone interview.

Whenever there is money to be made, unscrupulous people “come out of the woodwork,” Stein said Friday. While the attorney general anticipates seeing a range of schemes to separate residents from their money, phishing emails seeking banking information are already popping up.

Already on the lookout for price gougers and various scammers trying to tap into fears surrounding the coronavirus pandemic with phony cures, insurance and medical supplies, the N.C. Department of Justice is adding these new bad actors to the list.

He urged North Carolina residents to be on the lookout for strange phone calls, emails and door-to-door solicitors. People should be wary of falling for scams but also shouldn’t hesitate to contact the Department of Justice if they suspect something, Stein said.

“Let us know when you see something that’s of concern,” he said. “It’s when we learn about it that we can act.”

Since the health crisis hit North Carolina in March, Stein said his office has fielded more than 900 complaints about suspicious activities. He’s reacting on the one hand by sending out general warnings, but his office has also launched investigations.

If scams are fraudulent and violate criminal statutes, perpetrators can be prosecuted. Price gougers may not face criminal prosecution, but they could still end up in court, Stein explained.

His office sends alleged price gougers a criminal investigative demand, or CID, ordering them to produce documentation about their business practices for presentation in civil court. The CID also functions as a warning that those accused of misconduct had better not destroy or alter any documents.

In some cases, their response and a Justice Department investigation show that there’s no real evidence of price gouging.

But in others, if the evidence supports the claims, violators could face action in civil court, including fines of thousands of dollars per violation, Stein explained.

Even though this is a new crisis, the attorney general has experience with similar deceptive practices during previous events.

“When the hurricanes hit, we brought seven lawsuits” against defendants facing similar accusations, he said, promising to “aggressively” pursue litigation of such cases during the coronavirus crisis.

Asked about whether Stein has found any substance to rumors that some individuals have been buying up hard-to-find items in order to sell them at outrageous prices, he said that hasn’t been seen yet in North Carolina, but this type of activity was confirmed in Tennessee.

Stein said the attorney general there took strong action against the perpetrators and he expects to do the same if this type of hoarding and reselling scheme is uncovered in North Carolina.