Where there’s money, scams are sure to follow — and the coronavirus pandemic is no exception.
From price-gouging on essentials to outright theft, students in Berkeley Law’s Consumer Advocacy and Protection Society (CAPS) are uncovering fraud and swindles all over the country, and they’re fighting back.
Working with Ted Mermin ’96, director of the school’s Berkeley Center for Consumer Law & Economic Justice, students have rooted out about 100 instances of shady dealings, including sketchy cures and efforts to snatch government stimulus checks.
Through searching the internet, asking friends and family to pass along suspicious emails, and tracking down common threads from previous enforcement actions, “we’ve identified a lot of dishonest advertising around COVID-19 treatments like colloidal silver, herbal regimens, and ozone treatments,” says CAPS Co-Chair Reed Shaw ’22.
Shaw and fellow co-chair Nabila Abdallah ’22 took their posts shortly before in-person classes ended in March and students were scattered around the country. Mermin, who was in touch with various enforcement agencies, suggested that the students look into coronavirus-related scams.
“There was work to be done protecting already vulnerable people from further harm,” he says. “Who would be better to do that work than Berkeley Law’s remarkably able and committed consumer law students?”
The Scamhunters Project was born. CAPS students started digging, spotted red flags, and held weekly Zoom meetings to trade tips and discuss how best to report their findings. More than 25 students are involved, and they hope to expand the effort to other law schools.
Their work has been well-received. The Federal Trade Commission sent warning letters to some targets they identified, and Shaw says student leads have aided enforcement actions by the California Attorney General’s office.
Mermin’s center has crafted consumer protection guides on such topics as tenants’ rights and auto insurance for those financially affected by virus-related shutdowns. Center research fellow Eliza Duggan ’16 has been writing the guides and helping students connect with regulators.
“I’m really excited about the work we’ve been doing,” she says. “It’s fun to dive in on really timely projects.”
For the students, Scamhunters has been a welcome outlet amid a most unexpected stretch of law school.
“Even in hectic circumstances, these student volunteers have the passion and willingness to put their talents towards pursuing justice for consumers,” Shaw says.
—Gwyneth K. Shaw