Los Angeles -- Warning members of the public to beware of misinformation, price gouging and scams connected to the coronavirus pandemic, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer and District Attorney Jackie Lacey today announced the creation of a Joint Coronavirus Task Force (the L.A. County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs and L.A. County Counsel are also participating), and detailed multiple efforts to stop illegal and dangerous practices.
“We’re fighting to protect an anxious and uncertain public from price-gouging, online scams and misinformation,” said Feuer. “My Office is investigating traditional stores and online retailers, uncovering unsubstantiated advertising claims about alleged coronavirus prevention, treatment, and cures, and investigating safety products—such as protective masks—that may not perform as advertised, as well as products being sold at astronomical prices. And we’re taking action. If you’re a victim, please contact our Office.”
“As prosecutors, we see first-hand how consumer fraud can infringe on our sense of security, shatter our trust and endanger our well-being,” Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said. “The consequences of today’s scams are more than just financial. These frauds may affect our health and the health of those around us. Unfortunately, every one of us is at risk of being duped by one of these scams.”
“With the spread of COVID-19, the most important action item is to safeguard our health and practice important prevention techniques. There is no room for moral depravity and putting profits over people. Under this State of Emergency, California’s price-gouging and consumer protection laws go into full effect. I encourage everyone to exercise decency and work with the City Attorney, District Attorney and Attorney General’s offices to end illegal acts in this critical moment,” said Assemblywoman Christy Smith, Chair of the California State Legislature Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management.
In its first effort to protect consumers from coronavirus scams, the City Attorney’s Office announced immediate success in removing internet advertising making alleged false claims about coronavirus prevention and treatment. Attorneys from Feuer’s Office discovered alleged false advertising from the Los Angeles-area company CEN Group LLC via its website, www.safebabyhealthychild.com, which markets and sells vitamin supplements and claimed, among other alleged false claims, that vitamin C is a “safe and proven treatment” that “can protect against coronavirus,” that “[p]eople are dying needlessly of coronavirus,” that “high doses of vitamins, especially Vitamin C, can be used to address the coronavirus outbreak”, and that “the coronavirus can be dramatically slowed or stopped completely with the immediate widespread use of high doses of vitamin C.”
The F.D.A. and F.T.C. have recently warned that there are currently no vaccines or drugs approved to treat the coronavirus, and the National Institute of Health has also cautioned that “alternative” treatments—such as high doses of vitamins A, C and D also do nothing to protect from the virus and are ineffective against Covid-19—and can in fact be harmful.
Feuer’s Office, concerned that the advertising claims related to Vitamin C as a treatment for coronavirus might induce consumers to ignore bona fide recommended precautions, such as vigilant hand-washing and social distancing, contacted the company. In response, CEN Group LLC immediately agreed to remove these claims from its website.
Consumers must also be alert to price gouging laws, which are triggered whenever a federal, state, or local state of emergency has been declared, as it was on March 4, 2020, in Los Angeles County in connection with coronavirus. Under the law, for 30 days following the emergency declaration, it is unlawful for any consumer good, food or service to be sold, or offered for sale, at a price higher than 10% more than it was sold, or offered for sale, prior to the emergency declaration. This includes medical supplies and any items purchased online and delivered to Los Angeles.
The City Attorney has the authority to proceed both criminally or civilly in response to price gouging violations. Violators may be sentenced to up to one year of county jail and/or fined up to $10,000. Civil law enforcement actions for price gougers can result in penalties, restitution to ripped off consumers and court orders to curb price gouging.
Investigators from the City Attorney’s Office have also been scouring brick and mortar and online businesses looking for overpriced items. Over the last week City investigators found and purchased on Amazon a hand sanitizer two-pack for $149 and a half-gallon of bleach for over $100, and have since alerted Amazon to these practices. The City Attorney is awaiting delivery of these items and, if his office can identify their third-party sellers, is prepared to take legal action.
Besides ripping off consumers, price gouging has another negative consequence. Even if consumers don’t make the purchase, just seeing such inflated prices can raise concerns and fuel general panic about a scarcity of items tied to this emergency.
Feuer’s Office also is requiring companies advertising in California on coronavirus-related issues to substantiate claims with scientific or other appropriate evidence. To this end, the Office has sent letters to companies which claim their products can prevent exposure to coronavirus and/or treat it. Among the products the Office has requested evidence about are “Silver Solution,” which is sold by televangelist Jim Bakker and claims to kill strains of coronavirus, and face masks sold on ModernBeyond.com, accompanied by claims that the masks can reduce the risk of contracting coronavirus by 95.99%.
If these companies do not substantiate or stop making these claims, the City Attorney’s Office will take further legal action.
Feuer and Lacey also warned of additional consumer scams related to coronavirus, which can include:
- Websites selling fake cures and safety gear.
- Fake emails, texts and social media posts from phishers posing as the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, or the Department of Health and Human Services who spread false information about a cure in an attempt to get credit card and personal information or to convince people to click on links that can infect their computers with malware.
- Fake donation requests, which may come in the form of people asking for donations to help those impacted by coronavirus and needing donations only by cash or gift card.
- Fake investment opportunities such as products or services of publicly-traded companies being able to treat and cure coronavirus and whose stock will dramatically increase, so consumers are pressured to “get in now!”
Feuer urged anyone who is the victim of price gouging or a coronavirus consumer scam to file a complaint with the Office of the City Attorney – either online or by calling 213-978-8070.