New York AG publishes top consumer complaints for 2020
“The devastation unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to the many other ways consumers were defrauded in 2020, unfortunately led my office to receive a record number of consumer fraud complaints in 2020,” said NY AG Tish James.
By Forum staff
New York Attorney General Tish James kicked off National Consumer Protection Week on Monday by posting a list of top consumer scams against New Yorkers in 2020 – many of which were linked to the public health crisis of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) – in addition to a variety of tips on how New Yorkers can avoid COVID-19 scams in the future.
After analyzing consumer complaints received statewide throughout 2020, the following turned out to be the top 10 consumer complaints by category:
- 1. Internet-related (Internet services and service providers, data privacy and security, digital media, data breaches, Internet manipulation fraud) 9,832
- COVID-19 Price gouging (online and brick-and-mortar prices for items such as hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, toilet paper, food) 7,701
- Landlord / tenant disputes (release of deposit, tenant harassment) 2,752
- Health clubs (ongoing billing of fees during club closures, inability to cancel memberships, refunds not provided, no response from clubs) 2,621
- Automotive (sales, service, financing, repairs) 2,561
- Consumer services (security systems, technical repairs, immigration services, vocational training) 2,512
- Retail sales (any sale of goods: food, clothing, hire-purchase, online orders) 1,609
- Credit (debt collection, credit card billing, debt settlement and relief, payday loans, credit repair, credit bureaus, identity theft) 1,436
- Utilities (cordless and residential telephones, energy services and providers, cable and satellite) 1,378
- Travel (unable to cancel or no refund for cancellations required by COVID-19 travel restrictions) 1,251.
The GA’s office also offered consumers the following tips that they should put into practice to minimize the risk of themselves or their family members falling victim to COVID-19-related scams in the future. :
Vaccine-related scams: The COVID-19 vaccine is NOT currently available to the general population of New York City. A full list of groups eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine is available on the New York State Department of Health website. Consumers are cautioned to be wary of offers promising quick or expedited access to the vaccine for a fee. These offers – which can be delivered by text, phone or email – are NOT legitimate. Con artists can pose as public health officials from organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO). Fraudsters can also offer to ship a COVID-19 vaccine directly to homes, provide special access to vaccines or clinical trials, or sell special cold storage devices to keep vaccines.
New Yorkers are urged to use the following tips to avoid vaccine scams:
- Beware of anyone calling or emailing vaccine offers, and don’t give out Social Security numbers, personal credit card numbers, or bank account information. No one from a vaccine distributor, healthcare company, or private insurance company will ask for this information.
- No New Yorker should be charged out of pocket – whether or not they have insurance – for a vaccine as long as the pandemic remains a public health emergency. If a New Yorker has to pay anything, including an administration fee, they should file a complaint on the OAG website.
- No one can pay to put their name on a list to get the vaccine or to participate in a vaccine clinical trial.
Fake vaccination cards: Consumers are warned to beware of fake vaccination cards sold on social media platforms or other areas of the internet. Vaccination cards usually record the date a vaccine was administered, the vaccine manufacturer and the lot number, and are provided by the vaccination site for the consumer’s own records. The target market for these fake cards may be people who wish to avoid the vaccine or who mistakenly believe the card is necessary for travel or for other purposes. Fake vaccination cards pose a risk to public health and should NOT be purchased for any reason. Information provided by consumers can also be used for identity theft.
Fake COVID-19 Cures: Bad actors have marketed a line of products with false claims that they can prevent, cure, or treat COVID-19. Consumers should NOT spend their money on these products, which do not work. The fake products sold range from colloidal silver products and toothpaste, to dietary supplements and herbal mixtures. Consumers should make health-related decisions in consultation with their health care providers. Attorney General James has sent numerous cease and desist letters to people and entities selling these fake and potentially dangerous COVID-19 products, including Alex Jones, the Silver Edge Company and Dr. Sherill Sellman, between others.
Price gouging: consumers and the general public are urged to pay attention to the prices charged on goods and services that are vital to their health, safety or well-being, including hand sanitizer, toilet paper , basic medical supplies and basic food items. New York’s predatory pricing law prohibits the sale of such goods and services during times of abnormal market disruption at an unreasonably excessive price. In addition to sending over 1,900 cease and desist letters to merchants over the past year to demand a halt in price increases, the OAG has arrested three third-party sellers who were using Amazon to raise prices. hand sanitizers and disinfectants. The OAG also sued a major egg distributor for abusing the price of 4 million cartons of eggs.
Health clubs: Consumers are reminded to know their rights. The New York Health Club Act allows gym members to cancel their membership in certain circumstances, including “after the services are no longer available or practically available as provided in the contract due to the [gym’s] permanent interruption of operation or substantial change in operation ”, and requires gym owners to provide pro-rated monetary refunds (NOT credits) for such cancellations within 15 days. In addition, the law further prohibits misrepresentation of consumers’ cancellation rights. The OAG sued the parent company of two major health club chains – New York Sports Clubs and Lucille Roberts – in New York City for violations of the health club law.
Puppy scams: The pandemic has dramatically increased demand for pets, as New Yorkers seek companionship during lockdown. Scammers typically pretend to be ranchers and refuse in-person meetings, using COVID-19 security protocols as an excuse. At the same time, these scammers demand additional fees, such as shipping pets in special “protection” crates or pandemic insurance.
New Yorkers are urged to practice the following tips to avoid puppy scams:
- Use a credit card to make the purchase and avoid wire transfer, send gift cards, or send money using apps as these transactions cannot be refunded and are not traceable.
- Do a thorough internet research for the breeder before purchasing a puppy to make sure that the email address used is not the same one used on several websites and that testimonials are not copied from other legitimate websites.
- Visit the breeder and the puppy in person, respecting social distancing. If a consumer is unable to do so, they should ask the breeder to video chat with them. Consumers are strongly advised not to purchase a puppy without visual confirmation. Consumers should also make sure to get visual confirmation before making any type of deposit. Consumers should insist on seeing where animals are kept and avoid breeders who offer to meet in a “convenient” public place.
- Keep in mind that shipping young animals long distances, especially as air freight during the hot summer months, comes with many risks. It is strongly recommended that the puppy be picked up in person and brought back under the passenger seat in a carrier. Be careful, scammers usually use a number of shipping-related excuses to get more money from consumers.
In the event that a consumer is the victim of fraud, they should make sure to keep all records of the sale, including advertising and written communications, noted James.
“The devastation unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to the many other ways consumers were defrauded in 2020, unfortunately led my office to receive a record number of consumer fraud complaints in 2020,” a- she added. “The consumers who have helped identify and report issues to our office have been invaluable partners in our efforts to end deceptive scams and will continue to be critical partners in the future. I urge all New Yorkers to follow these tips to minimize the risk of being a victim of fraud, but, in the event of fraud, my office will continue to fight to protect New York consumers.