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It was the end of February and I was at a pharmacy in Delhi, India. The house-help Julie looked over my shoulder at the medicine I was buying for her and whispered “Sunny Tiger (hand wash)” in my ear. “Sunny Tiger,” she said, “I want Sunny Tiger as well.” The threat of coronavirus hung in the air. TV stations had been exhorting people to buy sanitizer.

At the very same time in Kelowna, Canada, Councilwoman Mohini Singh was sitting down to her morning emails when her daughter Tara leaned over her shoulder and said, “Mum order some sanitizer please.” 

Tara took her mother’s credit card and went online to order three bottles of sanitizer.

When the bottles arrived in the mail they were the size of her index finger. The charge was $80.

Scammers have made off with $34 million in coronavirus-related fraud since the beginning of the year, reported the Federal Trade Commission.

Interestingly the fraudsters have targeted all age groups. Younger Americans ages 30 to 39 reported the greatest number of scams, while Americans ages 50 to 59 reported the highest financial loss. About 44 percent of the fraud complaints came from people who actually lost money – $5.85 million.

 

As part of their Family Emergency Scams advisory, the FTC warned grandparents specifically against family emergency messages that come from unfamiliar numbers and request wire transfers.

Scammers follow the money. They follow the headline, says Monica Vaca, Associate Director for the Division of Consumer Response and Operations in the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. The Division hears from consumers across the country about problems they experience in the marketplace, and manages and provides law enforcement access to the Consumer Sentinel Network. They deliver refunds to consumers resulting from FTC law enforcement actions.

Speaking at a webinar organized by Ethnic Media Services, Monica Vaca warned people to be careful of the offers — whether it’s by phone, by email or text. Government agencies and legitimate firms never ask for payment with a prepaid gift card or wire transfer. She told people to beware of logos and verbiage that are trying to masquerade as official, as they are scams to trick people into sharing personal information. 

Exploiting the fears and uncertainty triggered by the pandemic is the scam artist’s game.

The top category on the FTC’s list of complaints was travel and vacation; more than 5,700 complaints were filed with consumers reporting more than $8.7 million in losses.

Travel cancellations triggered by the pandemic proved a ripe breeding ground for scams. People who had to cancel travel plans they made in previous months lost money in airfare, hotels, and other components of planned vacations. Online shopping scams were also responsible for a significant chunk of consumer-reported claims.

The pandemic has enabled fraudsters to have a buffet of options. An offer of help could be very alluring to people grappling with understanding the Economic Impact Payment or stimulus payments promised by the government. Online shopping for the uninitiated can be a maze. Cures for the dreaded Coronavirus, flights home for students, and Facebook endorsements of companies are potential quagmires. 

Be warned, says the FTC.  A quick click of the mouse promises to make it all easy but can trick you into giving away personal information. Report scams to  ftc.gov/coronavirus. Check with the Better Business Bureau for businesses and charities you can trust and for warnings of the latest scams. If you have already paid, ask your credit card company to treat it as an unauthorized transaction. Beware of phishing emails and text messages that tell a story to trick you into clicking on a link or opening an attachment. 

The Federal Trade Commission announced the launch of two new interactive dashboards reporting on international fraud and scams related to the pandemic. One site, a partnership of 34 consumer protection agencies around the world, gathers and shares complaints about international scams submitted by consumers to econsumer.gov.  Another site has data on international reports submitted to the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network.

In a recent case originating from Nigeria, scamsters tricked the German health authorities into transferring EUR 880,000 as an advance for facemasks. The Germans were scrambling to find facemasks and other critical medical equipment as the pandemic grew, said Interpol, when the scamsters struck.

The German government was not the only one overturning every rock to find equipment in Corona times. When President Donald Trump posted on Twitter to urge Ford and General Motors to “START MAKING VENTILATORS, NOW!” – Yaron Oren-Pines, an electrical engineer in Silicon Valley tweeted back: “We can supply ICU Ventilators, invasive and noninvasive. Have someone call me URGENT.”

Three days later, Buzzfeed reported that New York State paid Oren-Pines $69.1 million. The payment was for 1,450 ventilators — $47,656 per ventilator, at least triple the standard retail price of high-end models. 

No ventilators were delivered.

Ritu Marwah is a 2020 California reporting and engagement fellow at USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism.

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