Americans Have Lost $545 Million to Fraud Since the Pandemic Started

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Fraud has robbed many people of their hard-earned money. Here's how to avoid being a victim.

You'd think that during a major health and economic crisis, scammers would give their antics a rest. But actually, consumer fraud exploded during the pandemic, so much so that Americans have been robbed of an estimated $545 million since the beginning of 2020, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

The agency says it received almost 589,000 consumer complaints associated with the pandemic between Jan. 1, 2020, and Aug. 30, 2021. About 61% of those complaints were related to fraud, and the median amount lost per consumer was $380.

Not shockingly, price-gouging was the most commonly reported pandemic-related issue in 2020. Back when essentials like toilet paper and sanitizer were hard to come by, many consumers had to pay a premium to get their hands on those items. But to be clear, it's illegal to charge consumers an unreasonable amount of money for a product that's in short supply. (The definition of "unreasonable" varies from state to state.)

Other instances of fraud included consumers paying for products online but never receiving them. And many people fell victim to travel-related scams.

Given how hard we all work to put money into our bank accounts, the last thing any of us want is to fall victim to consumer fraud. Here are a few ways to avoid it.

1. Only shop online using reputable websites

During the early stages of the pandemic, consumers were desperate to get their hands on certain supplies, and many resorted to buying things from websites they'd never heard of. A better bet? Stick to trusted names like Target, Amazon, Walmart, or other companies that are well known and that have been around for a long time. An online source you've never heard of may offer a better price, but if you don't end up getting the product you order, then it's not a better deal.

2. Use credit cards to shop online

You'll often get a solid level of protection when you shop online using a credit card as opposed to a debit card. Major credit cards generally do a good job of protecting consumers from things like fraud and unauthorized charges, so that can add another layer of protection.

3. Only book travel through a trusted source -- and read the fine print

Many consumers had their travel plans canceled on them during the pandemic, only to be given the runaround on getting a refund. If you're going to book travel, use a reputable source. Booking flights directly through an airline or through a trusted site like Expedia will generally give you a decent amount of protection. If you're going to use a travel agent, vet that person carefully. It's not a bad idea to check their Better Business Bureau record to make sure there are no complaints on file.

At this stage of the pandemic, most essential supplies like soap and paper products are fairly easy to come by, so price-gouging is less likely to be an issue in the near term. But that doesn't mean you don't need to stay vigilant about other types of fraud. These days, more consumers are shopping online, and that opens the door to increased criminal activity. Follow the above tips so you don't wind up being a victim.

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