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Watch out for coronavirus scams, Maryland attorney general warns

Maryland’s attorney general is warning residents and investors to be on the lookout for scams related to the new coronavirus.

Scammers are setting up websites to sell bogus health products that claim to prevent or cure COVID-19 and using fake emails, texts and social media posts about the illness to steal money and personal information, Attorney General Brian E. Frosh said.

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“Scammers are taking advantage of people’s fear of getting sick from COVID-19," Frosh said in an announcement. “Consumers can avoid being cheated by understanding how these thieves are trying to steal their personal information and money.”

Maryland health officials have confirmed the state’s first three cases of the virus, the respiratory disease that has sickened at least 100,000 across the globe and killed more than 3,000.

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Gov. Larry Hogan announced Thursday night that the state’s Public Health Laboratory in East Baltimore confirmed the cases, which are all in Montgomery County. Two are a married couple in their 70s and the third is an unrelated woman in her 50s who had traveled with them. They are all recovering in isolation in their homes.

Frosh said Friday that swindlers are posing as authorities, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization.

Scammers send emails claiming to offer updated information about how people can protect themselves from COVID-19, the attorney general said. He warned that such unsolicited emails from those agencies or from other “experts,” who say they have information about the virus are likely “phishing” attempts to get money or personal information. Or they could be trying to download viruses or malware onto computers.

Likewise, anyone seeking donations to help victims or for research, especially in cash, prepaid credit cards or gift cards, is likely a scammer.

No vaccines, drugs or treatment products have been approved yet for the coronavirus and pitches for such products or cures are likely fraudulent — and the products themselves could be harmful.

The attorney general’s office advised against clicking on suspicious links in emails or online and to seek information from reliable sources such as the CDC or the Maryland Department of Health. Complaints against fraudulent health claims can be filed with the Federal Trade Commission or reported to the state’s Consumer Protection Division by calling 410-528-8662.

Additionally, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is warning about online promotions, including on social media, claiming that the products or services of publicly traded companies can prevent, detect or cure coronavirus and that investment in such stocks will increase in value. The SEC warns that investors could lose “significant” amounts of money if they invest in companies making fraudulent claims.

Scams also could involve “pump-and-dump” schemes in which promoters hype a stock, get many people to invest and then sell off their own shares quickly for a profit — before the stocks become worthless.

Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.

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