BALTIMORE — When hand sanitizer and bleach fly off the shelves, and toilet paper is listed on eBay for $75, consumer instinct kicks in to buy what you can, when you can.
Angelica Gomez was among the many customers searching for N95 face masks.
"Everything was sold out or not available within 100 miles of us," said Gomez.
Her co-worker found reusable versions online and sent her the link. On its website, EM General advertises that its anti-viral masks filter up to 99 percent of harmful particles including viruses, and are on sale for just $24.99.
Gomez bought seven for $175.
Even though experts have warned that masks don’t benefit healthy people, and reduce the supply for first responders who do need them, Gomez still wanted some on hand out of fear for her family who may be highly susceptible to the virus because of underlying conditions.
“My husband, his genes aren't great. He has high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and he had quintuple bypass when he was 38 years old,” Gomez said. “I have two sons with asthma and I have another son who already has diabetes.”
Gomez waited for the masks to arrive, but they never did. When she reached out to the company by phone and email, no one responded.
WMAR-2 News Mallory Sofastaii also tried contacting the business and never received a response.
“They're creating false hope because it's not real to begin with,” Gomez said.
Just this month, the Better Business Bureau has received 15 Scam Tracker reports about the company, with a reported loss of around $1,500.
The business doesn’t list an address, and a reverse Google image search revealed the photos of their executives are stock images.
"We also see an effort for people to try to buy and stockpile masks, which aren't effective to protect yourself," said Dr. Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar and assistant professor with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for Health Security, who studies misinformation infecting the internet.
“We have an example the coronavirus might've originated in a lab linked to China's biowarfare program, that's misinformation. The interesting thing about this misinformation is that if you go to a different country, it blames a different country,” said Dr. Sell during a webcast earlier this month.
Even more dangerous, warned Sell, are claims of fake cures.
“People can go waste their money, people can think they're protected when they're not protected and take risky actions they shouldn't be taking. And sometimes these actual cures actually harm people themselves,” Sell said.
Currently, there is no cure. And the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is advising consumers to stay away from websites advertising vaccinations, prevention methods, treatments, or cures.
Seven companies have recently found themselves in hot water with the FTC and FDA for their misleading advertisements. Vital Silver, Quinessence Aromatherapy Ltd., N-ergetics, GuruNanda, LLC, Vivify Holistic Clinic, Herbal Amy LLC, and The Jim Bakker Show were all sent warning letters from the two agencies.
Several of the companies included phrases such as "essential oils that protect against coronavirus," “colloidal silver kills all viruses," and "herbs that are strongly antiviral for coronaviruses."
There are so many myths and rumors, the World Health Organization has a page dedicated on their site to correcting false information.
Some common misconceptions are that cold weather kills the coronavirus.
According to WHO:
- The virus can be transmitted in all areas regardless of climate
- Hot baths don't prevent the new coronavirus disease
- It's a very bad idea to spray alcohol and chlorine all over your body, and no it won't kill the virus
- While garlic is healthy, there's no evidence that eating it will protect people
The FTC is also warning people to avoid clicking on suspicious links or attachments from sources you don't know. And be on the lookout for emails claiming to come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or WHO. Go directly to their websites instead.
The message is to think about what you're reading. Be smart, be thoughtful and don't let fear lead you to fall for a scam.