By Josh Stein
In North Carolina and around the world, we are responding on all fronts to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is an unprecedented time, and my greatest concern is making sure that North Carolinians are safe and protected. Even as we watch out for each other, scammers are still looking for ways to take advantage of our fears. Here are some important updates you need to know about our office’s work to protect North Carolinians during the pandemic.
Many of our fellow North Carolinians are facing economic hardships, job losses and health struggles right now. They should be focused on the health of their loved ones, not worried about additional debts and financial burdens or losing access to necessities like food and housing. That’s why I suspended the Department of Justice’s collections efforts on behalf of the state until further notice – that means all debt collections for agencies and universities that our office represents, except those necessary under statute of limitations or court-imposed deadlines, have stopped. I’ve also urged the U.S. Dept. of Education and the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs to take similar actions on behalf of federal student loan borrowers and veterans, respectively.
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During a public health pandemic where clean water and a roof over their heads are essential, no one should lose access to essential utility services like water, power and gas because they’re struggling to make ends meet. I wrote to local and municipal utilities across the state and asked them not to disconnect residents from these services, and I applaud Gov. Roy Cooper for issuing an executive order prohibiting utilities from terminating services for customers or charging them additional fees.
My office is working vigilantly to protect North Carolinians from scams and fraud. We are reviewing every price gouging complaint we receive – and in the month since the state of emergency went into effect, we have received more than 1,000 reports. My office is investigating nine online sellers over price gouging concerns, and if we conclude they are violating the law, I will take action against them for trying to prey on North Carolinians in a time of crisis.
As my office learns about scams that are on the rise from our federal and state partners or from customers, we are letting you know so you can be on the lookout and avoid losing your money. Be wary of door-to-door scammers or anyone selling home COVID-19 testing kits, miracle cures or other unsolicited offers. And safeguard any federal relief payments that many of you will receive in the coming weeks – don’t fall for robocalls, texts, or phishing emails that will give scammers access to your finances or personal information. You can learn more about how these stimulus checks will be distributed at irs.gov/coronavirus.
To the extent possible, we are all staying at home to help flatten the curve, but that doesn’t mean that home is always the safest place. I’m working with Chief Justice Cheri Beasley to ensure that victims of domestic violence continue to have access to the courts and legal protections they need. And if you are a victim of domestic abuse and you need help, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) to find service providers near you. You are not alone, and help is available.
Of course, if we’re all at home, that means our children are as well – and they’re spending more time than ever online. In partnership with Shield North Carolina and the North Carolina Coalition Against Human Trafficking, my office has released a one-page guide to help caretakers keep children and teenagers safe online. And I’m also posting new content on the web to help keep your kids entertained and educated – check out Story Time with Stein and Civics with Stein on Facebook (@JoshSteinNC), Twitter(@JoshStein_), or on Instagram (@JoshSteinNC).
We will get through this rough time, but it will require all of us working together and treating each other with kindness, patience and compassion. And as we do, please know that my office is here to help. If you or a loved one has questions about a possible scam or fear you’ve been victimized, contact our office’s Consumer Protection Division at ncdoj.gov/complaint or 1-877-5-NO-SCAM.
Josh Stein serves as North Carolina attorney general.
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