ATLANTA — With so many people getting stimulus checks this week, there are criminals looking at that as an opportunity.
It’s just one way scammers are trying to take advantage of people as the coronavirus crisis continues.
Federal authorities say victims have already been tricked out of millions of dollars, with more than 18,000 coronavirus scams being reported so far.
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Georgia’s attorney general told Channel 2 investigative reporter Justin Gray that his office has seen more than 600 complaints already.
Two of the biggest scam busts so far nationwide, the alleged masterminds behind the operations were right here in Atlanta.
The scams: Millions of dollars worth of N95 masks that don't really exist, so-called cures and treatments for COVID-19 that don't do what they claim, and texts, emails and calls about your stimulus check that aren't really from the federal government.
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr said criminals are acting fast to profit off coronavirus.
“They know that there is fear out there they know that there is uncertainly,” Carr said.
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The story of one of those schemes has hopefully ended as Christopher Parris, 39, of Atlanta, was arraigned in federal court on Friday.
Prosecutors said he tried to sell the Department of Veterans Affairs about $750 million worth of face masks and other personal protective equipment.
The problem -- there were no face masks. Prosecutors say it was a scam.
Gray dug into Parris’ past and found this is far from his first brush with federal authorities.
He’s allegedly stolen tens of millions of dollars from people.
Just a few months ago, Parris was charged by federal prosecutors with being one of the masterminds of a $115 million Ponzi scheme.
“I think for most of us, we would say what kind of person would one to take advantage of a disaster like this? But, you know this guy pretty well after tackling his paper trial. This doesn’t surprise you?” Gray asked said attorney Ben Widlanski, who filed a class action lawsuit last year on behalf of Parris' earlier alleged victims, many of them elderly.
“No. A disaster is an opportunity for people with no scruples,” Widlanski said. “This Ponzi scheme he was involved in for many, many years targeted some of the most vulnerable people in America – seniors, retirees.”
Parris had kept a low profile over the years while allegedly stealing millions. There’s not even any photos of him on social media.
But his business partner wasn’t so shy.
His alleged partner in crime, Perry Santillo, bragged about the money they were bringing in -- throwing a $150,000 Vegas party. He even had a rap song commissioned about his $1.2 million in custom suits.
“They were living a jet setting lifestyle,” Widlanski said.
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According to a federal indictment, a Georgia woman named Vicky Sun was charged with illegally importing the pesticide and falsely promoting it as a treatment for COVID-19.
“We’ve seen time and time again, when there’s a health crisis – we saw this with SARS, with Ebola – companies will come into the market and take advantage of consumer’s anxieties and prey on them,”said Daniel Kaufman, with the Federal Trade Commission.
The FTC said is it has already gotten more than 18,000 complaints about COVID-19 fraud, with victims reporting losing $13.4 million so far.
Just this week, the FTC sent out 10 more letters to companies ordering them to cease and desist, making false claims that their products can treat COVID-19.
One such case is Genesis Church selling chlorine dioxide as a holy sacrament that can treat coronavirus.
“People are scared, they’re concerned and that is when these criminals step in?” Gray asked Kaufman.
“Yeah, I think the message is to be informed. You have to realize you’re not going to find a magic pill on the internet,” Kaufman said.
If you don't follow Washington, D.C., closely, you may not have even heard of the FTC.
That's why Georgia Rep. Buddy Carter told Gray he's hoping his bipartisan bill will be a part of new emergency aid that would require the FTC and FDA to increase their outreach and education about COVID-19 scams.
“Let me tell you, they’re good. These scammers are good at what they do and they’re very believable,” Carter said.
With billions of dollars in checks on the way to most Americans this week, the IRS is warning you to watch for criminals out to steal your stimulus check.
Channel 2 consumer adviser Clark Howard offered this piece of advice.
“Don’t trust any text you get that says, ‘Hey check here on the status of your stimulus check,’ because it’s the next step to you getting ripped off,” Howard said.
Carr told Gray that the volume of scams over coronavirus is overwhelming and they can't get to them all.
Carr said his staff found more than 100,000 domain names already related to COVID-19 schemes.
But Carr said the power is in your hands. You can go to legitimate sites like CDC or Georgia Department of Public Health to see if the product being peddled is legit.
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