Senate Democrats push federal agencies to combat coronavirus scams and robocalls

Senate Democrats push federal agencies to combat coronavirus scams and robocalls
© Greg Nash

Sens. Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanSenators press IRS chief on stimulus check pitfalls Hillicon Valley: Livestreaming service Twitch suspends Trump account | Reddit updates hate speech policy, bans subreddits including The_Donald | India bans TikTok Senators move to boost state and local cybersecurity as part of annual defense bill MORE (D-N.H.) and Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperHillicon Valley: Facebook to label 'newsworthy' posts that violate policies | Unilever to pull ads from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram | FEC commissioner steps down Senate Democrats push federal agencies to combat coronavirus scams and robocalls The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Mark Takano says Congress must extend worker benefits expiring in July; WHO reports record spike in global cases MORE (D-Del.) on Friday urged federal agencies to take action in rooting out coronavirus-related scams.

Hassan and Carper sent letters to the leaders of the Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) asking each to detail steps they are taking to combat rampant coronavirus-related robocalls and scams.

“These scams take many forms, including offering expedited access to economic stimulus payments for a fee, impersonating public health officials, and selling phony products that they claim can prevent or cure COVID-19,” the senators wrote. “These offensive scams are a danger to the health and financial security of Americans.”

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The senators highlighted robocalls as well as online scams, pointing to a recent $225 million FCC fine against two health telemarketers that spammed Americans with more than 1 billion robocalls using fake numbers.

The fine was the largest in the FCC’s history, but Hassan and Carper noted that the Justice Department has sometimes failed to collect these types of fines, citing a Wall Street Journal article that found less than $7,000 had been collected out of an estimated $208 million owed by robocallers.

“This poor track record raises concerns that scammers using robocalls to deceive consumers and exploit anxiety associated with the COVID-19 public health emergency will be able to act without significant fear of reprisal, and never made to disgorge the ill-gotten proceeds of their fraud,” the senators wrote. 

Scams targeting COVID-19 fears and federal stimulus funds have skyrocketed over the past few months.

A top Secret Service official testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month that at least $30 billion in federal relief funds will likely be stolen by criminals, with much of the theft occurring online. 

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The Justice Department announced in mid-April that it had notified website domain hosts of hundreds of websites attempting to exploit Americans tied to COVID-19 fears. A top FBI official said earlier this week that the agency’s Internet Crime Complaint Center had received 20,000 coronavirus-related complaints this year. 

The FTC announced at the end of March that it had received 7,800 consumer complaints related to the COVID-19 pandemic since the beginning of the year, with an estimated total of $4.77 million stolen from individuals by scammers. 

Hassan and Carper are not the first senators to raise concerns around coronavirus-related scams.

Sens. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Fauci says focus should be on pausing reopenings rather than reverting to shutdowns; WHO director pleads for international unity in pandemic response State election officials warn budget cuts could lead to November chaos Biden strikes populist tone in blistering rebuke of Trump, Wall Street MORE (Minn.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDemocrats blast Trump for commuting Roger Stone: 'The most corrupt president in history' Pharma pricing is a problem, but antitrust isn't the (only) solution The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic Unity Taskforce unveils party platform recommendations MORE (Mass.) lead a group of Senate Democrats in sending a letter to the agency in May highlighting their concerns that scammers were targeting small business relief funds. 

Klobuchar and Sen. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranSenate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick Watchdog accuses Commerce of holding up 'Sharpiegate' probe report Senate Democrats push federal agencies to combat coronavirus scams and robocalls MORE (R-Kan.) also previously introduced legislation meant to protect senior citizens from COVID-19 scams, with seniors often seen as easy targets by online malicious actors.