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Scams & Warnings

Malware and Other Coronavirus Scams Prey on Public Fears

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Photo by Fusion Medical Animation

WEST HOLLYWOOD — The City of West Hollywood is getting the word out about a Los Angeles County warning that there has been an increase in coronavirus (COVID-19) scams involving fraudulent and malicious websites, email schemes, and phishing emails containing suspicious links, as well as dishonest door-to-door asks for donations.

Local law enforcement and public officials across the region are urging community members to exercise caution.

Currently, there are several malware sites that claim to be coronavirus tracking and mapping sites that are in fact malicious. Cybersecurity experts advise website users to hover over links before clicking in order to verify the uniform resource locator (URL) before moving forward.

Online hackers may also send emails from fraudulent accounts impersonating official websites and doctors or offering medical supplies and services.

A trusted COVID-19 mapping resource is the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Global Map, which can be found at coronavirus.jhu.edu. Additionally, there are several websites that Los Angeles County recommends for accurate, up-to-date information about COVID-19, such as:

Official City of West Hollywood coronavirus updates are available at www.weho.org/coronavirus.

As community members in the City of West Hollywood and across Los Angeles County adhere to Safer at Home directives, many are spending more hours at home. Scammers are taking advantage of this shift by traveling door-to-door asking for cash donations and Bitcoin or Paypal contributions. As a reminder, residents should never feel obligated to open a door to strangers or respond to unanticipated door-to-door solicitations. 

The following is a list of safety tips:

  • Avoid online advertising offers related to COVID-19;
  • Decline door-to-door solicitations claiming COVID-19 fundraising;
  • Do not click on emails and attachments that you do not recognize; and
  • Visit trusted websites for COVID-19 related information or donate to organizations to trust and seek out.

Everyone should remain vigilant and take these steps to avoid being victimized by malicious scammers trying to profit from the COVID-19 crisis. If you believe you have been scammed, contact your bank immediately and report the information to local law enforcement. The West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station may be reached at (310) 855-8850.

The City of West Hollywood continues to urge community members to follow the LA County Department of Public Health’s Safer at Home Order, which went into effect Thursday, March 19, 2020 at 11:59 p.m. The Order will remain in effect until April 19, 2020, and may be extended. The Order was issued concurrently with orders from Gov. Gavin Newsom calling upon all individuals living in the State of California to stay home in order to reduce transmission of coronavirus.

West Hollywood City Hall is currently closed to the public and has suspended all in-person transactions. All public City buildings and facilities are closed. City Hall will remain accessible for business and essential services with transactions to be conducted by phone (323) 848-6400 and via the City’s website at www.weho.org.

The City of West Hollywood coronavirus updates are available at www.weho.org/coronavirus and the City encourages community members to follow @wehocity on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and turn on notifications for up-to-date information regarding details in the City of West Hollywood.

To view essential-business City meetings, tune in to WeHoTV at:

For notifications by email, subscribe to the City’s E-Notifications at www.weho.org/email. Visit the City’s event and meetings calendar at www.weho.org/calendar and news archive at www.weho.org/news. To receive urgent updates to your phone by text and to your email, text your ZIP code to 888-777.

For updates and information about the current numbers of COVID-19 cases in the United States and in Los Angeles County, the spread of the virus, severity, treatments, precautions, and other important public health information in multiple languages, please visit websites for:

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Scams & Warnings

Man Arrested for Fraudulant Investment Scheme Claiming COVID-19 Cure

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LOS ANGELES – Special agents with the FBI this evening arrested a Southern California man on a federal fraud charge alleging he solicited investments in a company he claimed would be used to market pills that would prevent coronavirus infections and an injectable cure for those already suffering from COVID-19.

Keith Lawrence Middlebrook, 53 – who is associated with several addresses, including residences in Westwood, Newport Beach and Murrieta – was arrested pursuant to a criminal complaint filed in United States District Court in Los Angeles.

 The complaint alleges that Middlebrook claimed to have personally developed a “patent-pending cure” and a treatment that prevents coronavirus infection, even though every major health authority has warned that there is no specific antiviral treatment for COVID-19 and no vaccine to prevent coronavirus infection.

Middlebrook was arrested during a meeting in which he delivered pills – purportedly the treatment that prevents coronavirus infection – to an undercover agent who was posing as an investor.

Middlebrook fraudulently solicited funds with promises of massive profits for a company he called Quantum Prevention CV Inc. (QP20), and he falsely claimed to at least one potential investor that Earvin “Magic” Johnson was a member of the board of directors, according to the affidavit in support of the complaint. Mr. Johnson confirmed to investigators that he knew nothing about Middlebrook’s company.

QP20, according to Middlebrook, would mass produce the pills he claimed would prevent COVID-19. Upon receipt of investor funds, Middlebrook would issue shares in both QP20 and Quantum Cure CV 2020 (QC20), another alleged corporation Middlebrook claimed would market the serum that could cure COVID-19 patients within two to three days, the complaint alleges.

In communications with a cooperating witness, Middlebrook said, “I have Developed the Cure for the CoronaVirus COVID-19…*LA Patient tested Positive for CoronaVirus got up and walked out 51 hours after my Injection,” according to the affidavit.

In the same text message, Middlebrook also wrote, “Investors who come in at ground level say $1M will parachute with $200M – $300M…Conservative Minimum.”

“During these difficult days, scams like this are using blatant lies to prey upon our fears and weaknesses,” said United States Attorney Nick Hanna. “While this may be the first federal criminal case in the nation stemming from the pandemic, it certainly will not be the last. I again am urging everyone to be extremely wary of outlandish medical claims and false promises of immense profits. And to those who perpetrate these schemes, know that federal authorities are out in force to protect all Americans, and we will move aggressively against anyone seeking to cheat the public during this critical time.”

 “There’s a particular opportunistic cruelty in seeking to profit based on the fear and helplessness of others,” said Paul Delacourt, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. “As the country reacts to the current crisis, and while many suffer from losing a loved one or losing their livelihood, the last thing Americans need are con-artists who hawk miracle cures they know are not tested, guaranteed, nor approved.

The FBI is using a variety of tools to identify anyone who exploits the current crisis through investment frauds or a variety of cyber schemes – and is proactively warning investors to thoroughly research any salesperson or any product claiming to save lives, before losing their money, or creating false hope.” 

Middlebrook will be held in federal custody until his initial court appearance, which is expected to be Thursday afternoon in United States District Court in downtown Los Angeles.

In a video posted eight days ago to his Instagram account, Middlebrook stated that he had created the cure for COVID-19, and he showed viewers a syringe with a clear liquid and described how his cure worked, according to the affidavit. Accompanying the video is text that reads, in part:

Yes I have Developed the Cure for the CoronaVirus COVID-19. After 6 Weeks of Intense Focus and Development (and very little sleep). I am currently going into Mass Production. … The CDC, WHO and Mainstream Media have created a Pandemonium environment. To answer this (just because it’s what I do) I have created a CoronaVirus Prevention Pill” (After 3 Days of taking it the person is Immune to the Virus and STAYS immune as long as they continue taking it once a day it the morning) and also the COVID-19 Formula Vaccine Cure to Satisfy the Physiological and Phycological Need at large.

The affidavit states that as of March 24 the video had been viewed more than 633,000 times.

In another Instagram video that was viewed more than 1 million times over approximately three days, Middlebrook shows a pill he says prevents him from contracting COVID-19 and “states that if he took the pill and walked into the Staples Center filled with COVID-19 positive individuals, he could not contract the virus,” according to the criminal complaint.

The affidavit focuses on communications – both written and over the phone – between Middlebrook and two people he thought were potential investors, the cooperating witness and an undercover FBI agent. Middlebrook made a series of claims and promises to the undercover agent, including guaranteeing that a $300,000 investment would yield $30 million, a promise that was secured “by a current $10 billion offer from an unnamed buyer in Dubai,” according to the affidavit.

A criminal complaint contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The ongoing investigation in this matter is being conducted by the FBI.

  

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Scams & Warnings

Scammers Are Posing as Census Workers on the Phone and in Person

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Photo: Public News Service

DENVER — Census numbers are used to allocate political representation and to determine how many federal tax dollars are sent back to states for education and health programs, transportation, infrastructure and more.

But imposter scams continue to target older Americans, and with the upcoming 2020 Census, many Colorado residents could be receiving phony census contacts fishing for personal information that can result in fraud or identity theft.

Natriece Bryant, deputy executive director of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, says the more people understand how the Census actually will work, the more likely they’ll recognize shady activity.

“There’s only 10 questions that they will be asked, and none of those questions includes anything regarding their Social Security number, bank information, credit card information,” Bryant points out. “They’ll never ask for any money or donations.”

Invitations to participate in the once-a-decade count will be sent by mail this month. People can fill out the form online, or by mail, or by telephone if assistance is needed.

If people don’t respond, starting in May, Census workers will start knocking on doors to ensure an accurate count.

Official workers should be able to show you their Census Bureau photo ID badge with a Department of Commerce watermark and an expiration date.

Nearly half of U.S. adults said they had been targeted by an imposter scam, according to a recent AARP survey, and the number of scams where criminals pose as government representatives increased more than 50% over 2018.

Bryant says one common scam to look out for involves getting a voicemail threatening arrest if you don’t call back.

“And it’s kind of like the same type of scams that you get with the IRS scam, of someone from the IRS saying they’re contacting you, if you don’t call them back that they could arrest you,” she explains. “That’s never something that will be utilized by the Census Bureau, it’s never something that anyone should ever receive.”

Scammers have learned to capitalize on current events, and Bryant says now that the Census is in the news, be on the lookout for criminals looking to deceive people into sharing sensitive information or handing over money.

If you think you’ve been targeted, or if you’re not sure if a Census form is legitimate, visit colorado.gov/census2020.

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Consumer News

Officials: Coronavirus Price Gouging and Scams Will Be Prosecuted

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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 have 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 with 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 has 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.

It alleges, 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 is 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, triggered whenever a federal, state, or local state of emergency has been declared, as on March 4  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 warn 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 urges anyone who is a 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 213-978-8340. 

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