Scammers Are Out of Control Right Now

As host of ‘The Dream’ podcast, reporting on scammers is my job. The pandemic is making fraud way too easy.

I didn’t mean to become the scam police. What happened was this: I made a podcast called The Dream about a very particular kind of scam called multilevel marketing, or network marketing, or direct sales. You know, Mary Kay and Herbalife and Beachbody, the kind of gigs where you purport to sell things to your friends and family, but really your goal is to get them to sign up to sell things for you. And then they are supposed to do the same thing with the not really selling anything but recruiting others to, ad infinitum. They’re pyramid schemes, basically, but don’t quote me on that, because I could get sued.

We made this podcast a couple years ago, and then last year we made another season about an industry that is frequently linked to multilevel marketing: wellness. Little did we know at the time how prescient our focus was. Now that the world is besieged with Covid-19, the peddlers of scams are out in full force, and the lack of any oversight — any single authority who could do something to shut them down — is most evident in my DMs. Yes, because the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the actual police and lawyers don’t have the resources to go after the immense number of profiteers out there, people are bringing their complaints to me, a mom in Los Angeles who dropped out of high school and now makes podcasts for herself and others. I’m the scam police, and I’d like to give you a snapshot of the reports I’m seeing.

Those who are dying most often are those of us who don’t have access to steady income or quality health care. It’s no coincidence that charlatans and fraudsters are setting their sights directly on those most vulnerable to this plague.

All the scams going around right now have one goal in mind: to make money in a sketchy way. According to my Twitter message requests (“This is where you’ll see messages from people you don’t follow. They won’t know you’ve seen the request unless you respond.”), there’s a wild one right now that doesn’t promise anything other than you, too, can scam people out of their stimulus checks, basically. This new pyramid scheme that has picked up steam since the pandemic is called an “abundance grid” and sometimes a “blessing loom,” and it’s always referred to as a game. It starkly resembles the Airplane Game we covered in the very first episode of our podcast. Basically, you pay someone $100 to join their “team” or “circle” or whatever other name the scammer comes up with, you recruit others to do the same, and once enough people are recruited, you get a payout of X times your investment. It’s highly illegal, but with so many people out of work and yearning for some quick cash, turning $100 into $800 overnight is incredibly enticing. (Don’t fall for it; the FBI is watching.)

But, of course, the main theme right now is wellness and health. I’m getting a lot of DMs and emails about cure-alls: magical potions and lotions that can allegedly destroy the coronavirus on contact, or without contact, or by magical frequencies even! The danger, obviously, is that nothing but a vaccine or an FDA-approved antiviral medication can help you avoid or recover from this novel virus—we hope. Neither of these options is available yet, because we simply don’t know enough — “we” meaning the CDC and other huge organizations tasked with figuring this stuff out. But snake oil salesmen will claim they’re way ahead of the curve, selling false hope to people in desperate times.

The saddest but also most hilarious one is called colloidal silver, which allegedly has germ-fighting powers.Side note: if you drink enough of it, you can turn yourself into a human-sized Smurf. The condition is called argyria, and it happens when the silver accumulates in your skin cells, gets exposed to light, and essentially tattoos you from the inside out. But that’s about as effective as that treatment gets. It probably won’t kill you, but it won’t kill the coronavirus either. Neither does any essential oil, not DoTerra, not Young Living, none of them. The FDA is sending warning letters to these companies as the agency is made aware of claims that the oils do anything but smell nice (or gross, as is the case with patchouli, IMO). But the warning letters are only that for now — warnings — and include this plea:

Within 48 hours, please send an email to COVID-19-Task-Force-CDER@fda.hhs.gov describing the specific steps you have taken to correct these violations. Include an explanation of each step being taken to prevent the recurrence of violations, as well as copies of related documentation. Failure to immediately correct the violations cited in this letter may result in legal action, including, without limitation, seizure and injunction.

May result in legal action. Were I a scammer, I would not bat one single eyelash after reading that.

There are smaller businesses trying to fly under the radar to sell the same crap. One of you sent me a note about this woman named JoAnn, who believes she is French royalty but for some reason has to peddle a “Coronavirus oil” on her shitty website? I sent the tip to Truth in Advertising (which is honestly a much better target for these messages than my spam folder), but JoAnn is still at it, claiming it’s her version of thieves oil, which was purportedly used in the 14th century to ward off the Black Plague (as if science hasn’t moved on since then). She states on her website: “I have decided to sell it again for this pandemic with the Corona Virus and any other flu virus that is going rampant.” Okay, JoAnn.

Have you ever heard of Kangen Water? Neither had I until I got flooded with emails about it! It’s a patented fucking WATER sold through multilevel marketing (always a tip-off that something is bullshit!) that has been either alkalinized or made more acidic so you can drink water with different pH balances for some reason? What Kangen Water is NOT is a cure for the coronavirus, okay? It’s fucking water. Even Wikipedia knows it’s nonsense: “Such claims violate basic principles of chemistry and physiology.” Imagine getting owned by WIKIPEDIA.

You may have heard about Chris Cuomo’s wife, Cristina, bathing in Clorox bleach, which she falsely claimed helped shorten the duration of the coronavirus that attacked her family. How any single person could make the determination that the duration of an illness was shortened by any single “treatment” is beyond me, since there’s no way to know how long something will last without a control group, Cristina. But! Have you also heard of drinking bleach to cure Covid-19? I have, now, because of a link I was sent to this article about the idiot who told our president it was a good idea. It’s not. I cannot believe I just had to type that. NEVER DRINK BLEACH.

Here’s a “fun” one that kind of has to do with weed: Neuro XPF. The company sells CBD products that claim to “Crush Corona… While scientists around the world are working 24/7 to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, it will take many more months of testing before it’s approved and available. However, there’s something you can do right now to strengthen your immune system. Take CBD… CBD can help keep your immune system at the top of its game… It’s what protects your body from the everyday attacks of bacteria, viruses, parasites and a host of other nasties.” (Nasties. Obviously written by a total stoner, dude.) The above claims were quoted in the warning letter the FDA sent to Neuro XPF, so the head of the company — some former pro football player — apparently quit his post as CEO so he can keep talking about how weed cures or prevents the coronavirus, depending on how high you are at the time of your press conference. It does neither. PLUS! Man, can you imagine anything worse than being stoned and not being able to breathe at the same time? Like, if you weren’t already in the hospital with the coronavirus, you’d be headed there with a major panic attack.

Some people have gotten my whole vibe completely mixed up, like this person who messaged me to see if I wanted to buy their shungite, which is a rock that’s supposed to protect you from… stuff? I dunno. It’s a rock. I said very plainly on our program that I don’t believe in rocks having magical powers, but I do believe some of them are pretty. Some.

I worry that I sound like a complete asshole here, just ranting about how ignorant and opportunistic and, to be honest, evil profiteers are, but I cannot help myself. This is a very scary, very serious time, and a lot of people are dying, obviously. Those who are dying most often are those of us who don’t have access to steady income or quality health care. It’s no coincidence that charlatans and fraudsters are setting their sights directly on those most vulnerable to this plague. “If you can’t afford a doctor visit, try drinking this special water! And sell it to your friends while you’re at it, since you’re probably out of a job, too!”

Being inundated with tips each and every day during lockdown is exhausting and frustrating, but I don’t want anyone to stop. I understand the impulse. Who is more likely to pick up the phone or read their DMs: me or the feds? Me. I will read your unsolicited emails. I will click on the link to your cousin’s supposed miracle cure. I will watch in horror as your friend implores her Instagram followers to Venmo her hundreds of dollars for her “abundance circle” while we’re in the worst financial crisis in our nation’s history.

But I can’t actually do anything about any of it. I can’t stop people from trying to profit off our collective desperation. No one can. This is America, baby.

Jane hosts The Dream and is the co-founder of Little Everywhere, a podcast production house in LA.

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