FTC Launches Rulemaking to Combat Sharp Spike in Impersonation Fraud

Reported losses jump as government and business impersonators capitalize on COVID-19 confusion and concern to bilk consumers out of billions

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The Federal Trade Commission launched a rulemaking today aimed at combatting government and business impersonation fraud, a pernicious and prevalent problem that has grown worse during the pandemic. Impersonators use all methods of communication to trick their targets into trusting that they are the government or an established business and then trade on this trust to steal their identity or money.

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred a sharp spike in impersonation fraud, as scammers capitalize on confusion and concerns around shifts in the economy stemming from the pandemic. Incorporating new data from the Social Security Administration, reported costs have increased an alarming 85 percent year-over year, with $2 billion in total losses between October 2020 and September 2021. Notably, since the pandemic began, COVID-specific scam reports have included 12,491 complaints of government impersonation and 8,794 complaints of business impersonation.

“It is reprehensible that scammers are preying on people during this pandemic by pretending to be someone they can trust,” said Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The sharp spike in impersonation scams has cost our country billions and undermined response and relief efforts. The FTC is prepared to use every tool in our toolbox to deter government and business impersonation fraud, penalize wrongdoers, and return money to those harmed.”

Government and business impersonators can take many forms, posing as, for example, a lottery official, a government official or employee, or a representative from a well-known business or charity. Impersonators may also use implicit representations, such as misleading domain names and URLs and “spoofed” contact information, to create an overall net impression of legitimacy.  These scammers are fishing for information they can use to commit identity theft or seek monetary payment, often requesting funds via wire transfer, gift cards, or increasingly cryptocurrency.

Government impersonators typically assert an air of authority to stage their scam. These impersonators sometimes threaten their target with severe consequences such as a discontinuation of benefits, enforcement of tax liability, and even arrest or prosecution. Government impersonators have also been known to deceive consumers into paying for services that would otherwise be free, or to lure them with promises of government grants, prizes, or loan forgiveness.

Business impersonators typically get consumers’ attention with emails, telephone calls or text messages about suspicious activity on consumers’ accounts or computers or supposed good news about a refund or prize in hopes of gaining trust and receiving personal information. The harm is substantial, as people who lose money on the leading business impersonator scams report an individual median loss of $1,000.

In the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR), the FTC is seeking comment from the public on a wide range of questions about these schemes. The ANPR outlines the extensive data the Commission has collected related to these types of impersonation scams, drawn largely from the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network database of fraud reports, and its law enforcement experience in this area.

The FTC has brought numerous cases against government and business impersonation schemes through the years under its existing authorities, but the ANPR notes that the Commission’s authority to seek consumer redress or civil penalties in these cases is currently very limited. The provisions related to impersonation under the Telemarketing Sales Rule and Mortgage Assistance Relief Services Rule cover only specific sectors or methods of scams.  

This is the first rulemaking initiated under the Commission’s streamlined rulemaking procedures. A potential rule resulting from the ANPR could allow the FTC to seek strong relief for consumers across a broad array of government and business impersonation cases, which is especially important following the Supreme Court’s ruling in AMG Capital Management LLC v. FTC. If, after reviewing the public comments in response to the ANPR, the Commission decides to proceed with proposing such a trade regulation rule, its next step would be to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking.

The Commission vote to approve the Federal Register notice announcing the ANPR was 4-0. Chair Lina M. Khan issued a statement and Commissioner Christine S. Wilson released her remarks. The notice will be published in the Federal Register soon. Instructions for filing comments appear in the notice. Comments must be received 60 days from the publication date of the Notice.

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