The pandemic has battered the economy both nationally and locally, and has inspired scam artists around the country to try to defraud consumers through an array of schemes. WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Northeastern University law professor and WGBH News legal analyst Daniel Medwed about some of the scams going around and their legal implications. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: So let's talk numbers and set the table here. How many scams are we talking about and how many reports have we seen nationwide?
Daniel Medwed: Well, according to the Federal Trade Commission, we've seen more than 100,000 consumer complaints filed nationwide [and] over 3,000 in Massachusetts alone. Now, it's fair to say that these reported complaints are just the tip of the iceberg because presumably, some people are embarrassed about being bilked, are trying to engage in self-help to resolve the disputes or simply lack the wherewithal to issue these complaints. Many of them relate to allegations of identity theft, but others seem to fall into very distinctive categories of consumer fraud.
Mathieu: Okay, let's run through the categories. What types of scams seem to be unique here?
Medwed: Three different categories, I think, stand out in particular when you look over the data. First, many consumers have complaints about how companies have failed to give full refunds for travel and vacation expenditures — plans that were thwarted by the pandemic.
Second, there have been many reports of online ordering scams where you order goods, they never arrive or when they show up, they're defective. Many of these products seem to have a COVID-19 angle — purported home health remedies, vaccines, testing kits, things like that. Snake oil salesmen have always surfaced during public health crises, and 2020 appears to be no different.
Third and finally, the FTC recently issued a warning about fraudulent work-from-home job scams, which might be very enticing to a vulnerable population with lots of layoffs and people stuck at home in quarantine.
Mathieu: That's kind of heartbreaking, isn't it?
Medwed: It is.
Mathieu: Daniel, as you know, the attorney general has actually gotten involved in some of these cases. What's going on locally?
Medwed: So Massachusetts has one of the most powerful and robust consumer protection laws out there. It's known as Chapter 93A. And you mentioned our attorney general, Maura Healey. She has the authority to issue regulations that interpret Chapter 93 and she's used that authority proactively to help consumers.
For instance, back in March, she issued a regulation that was an anti-price gouging measure. That was a time when we were all worried about the supply chain collapsing. Initially, it was targeted at the gasoline and petroleum product industry. It was later amended to address other critical goods and services. The government has also issued regulations trying to clamp down on unfair and deceptive trade practices. The federal district court here in Boston overturned parts of that law that would have banned debt collectors from making phone calls to debtors and that would have prevented certain enforcement actions in court.
Mathieu: Have we seen a rise in white collar criminal activity, Daniel, of embezzlement or similar crimes?
Medwed: Well, that's a fascinating question because unlike most forms of consumer fraud, embezzlement requires that the perpetrator is already in a place of trust and confidence, like a bookkeeper or a contractor, and then capitalizes on that position [and] uses her perch to basically convert or appropriate someone else's assets to her own purpose, maybe just siphon off some money for herself or redirect money to pay off debts.
I haven't seen any data about a specific rise in embezzlement or this type of white collar criminal activity, but the conditions certainly seem ideal [with] the combination of an economic downturn and people not having ready access to their business files.
The Globe did report about a payroll processor who had left for Maine leaving 30 companies she did business for with hefty tax bills that they thought had been paid by the processor. So there's reason to think we might see more of those cases in the future.