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NY, LI enforcers target scammers, nonessential businesses that stay open

ALBANY — As the COVID-19 virus spreads, state Attorney General Letitia James and Long Island investigators are stepping up enforcement efforts against nonessential businesses that won’t close, people refusing to keep social distance, and scams tailored to the virus often aimed at military families and the elderly.

James is targeting nonessential businesses that remain open and scams including phony testing for the virus.

“It’s just outrageous,” James said in an interview about some of the violations.

“Whenever you are in the midst of a storm and whenever there is insecurity and fear, the criminals come out,” James said. “We have ramped up our operations,” she said, based on more than 9,000 complaints made to her office.

James’ office has contacted more than 250 businesses statewide violating Cuomo’s executive order to shut down nonessential businesses. She said all complied when faced with a potential order to close.

“You had individuals who needed clarification on the executive order, and you have others who are just taking advantage of the situation and others who just want to feed their families,” she said.

James said she is also investigating scams often directed at military families and the elderly. One scammer posed as a worker from federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offering testing for a fee. Others posed as federal officials to obtain personal financial information they claimed was needed to release $1,000 bailout checks.

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The attorney general’s office also called on registrars of internet domains to block the use of domain names that appear to offer promises of medical cures.

More than 4,000 price-gouging complaints have prompted more than 850 letters warning the businesses to cease the practice and return prices to previous levels. Most involved hand sanitizer and wipes, but many were for eggs, toilet paper and for phony treatments posing as vaccines for the virus, James said.

On Long Island, 60 Suffolk County police officers began patrols Tuesday under the new Together Enforcement Compliance measure of County Executive Steven Bellone. The officers are checking with businesses to assure that non-essential businesses are closed in compliance with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s executive order and that people in parks and in downtown areas comply with social distancing orders to avoid larger gatherings and to remain at least 6 feet from others.

So far, the county has received 182 complaints and 15 businesses have been found to have violated the order to close nonessential operations. They were stationery shops, fitness centers, bars and a roofing company. All voluntarily complied, said Bellone spokesman Jason Elan.

"We want to first educate businesses of the current state guidance so that they voluntarily comply and avoid incurring punitive actions,” said Bellone.

Nassau County’s Office of Consumer Affairs received more than 300 complaints and issued 70 violations for price gouging on protective equipment for health care workers such as masks and also for selling defective and expired masks. Some residents also received calls claiming to be from the county Health Department asking for Social Security numbers, which County Executive Laura Curran said county officials would never ask for over the phone.

“This is especially egregious,” Curran said. “We do have bad actors out there who are looking to capitalize on this and take advantage of the fear and anxiety.”

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