A weekly roundup of COVID-related consumer stories from our network
As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to wreak havoc on our health and finances, U.S. PIRG Education Fund is putting out resources and tip guides to help Americans weather the storm. To help illustrate these issues, each week, we’ll be posting a round-up of short stories from across our network from staff experiencing various COVID-related issues, and what they did about them.
What does the stimulus check mean to you?
By Lauren Banister, TexPIRG Education Fund associate
This week marks the first week that people will start seeing the $1,200 stimulus check in their bank accounts as a result of the CARES Act passed last month. This made me wonder -- now that people are starting to see this financial stimulus in their bank accounts, how do they plan to use it?
I put a call out on social media and to friends, asking, “What does it mean to you to be getting this money and how do you plan to spend it?”
I was surprised at how many people I reached out to weren’t sure if they qualified for the stimulus check. And I’ve been able to help them figure out if their parents should claim them as dependents, connect them to free tax software, and share the U.S PIRG guides on receiving your stimulus check and avoiding stimulus check scams.
I talked to food service workers, teachers, sales workers and artists. The food service workers, Austin and Dylan, have both taken a significant cut in their hours. The restaurant industry all across the country has been reeling from shuttering their doors for take-out only. This financial uncertainty has rippled down to all restaurant employees. Austin’s restaurant is “making in a month what it used to make in a night.” He has been able to maintain some hours helping with take-out orders but is happy “to see that my government is using my tax dollars to actually help me in a time of need” and will be putting that money towards his May rent and groceries.
Dylan splits his expenses with his girlfriend Steph, a teacher who is working full-time but remotely. She felt conflicted about receiving the stimulus check since they were still able to make ends meet even with Dylan working part-time. They are putting their stimulus checks into their savings in case something happens with the summer camps that Steph is planning to work at in the summer.
Another teacher, Adam, has also been working remotely full-time. Unlike Steph, he knew that he would continue to be teaching into the summer but that it may continue to be remote. He is using the stimulus money to move to a space where he can teach successfully. “I can’t keep stacking my laptop on top of books to get my camera to eye level” he said “if I am going to be teaching online into the foreseeable future, I need a space where I can set up a desk.”
I also talked to two artists, in very different industries. Cory, who works in graphic design says he is still busier than ever. But working from home without his studio has been difficult. A portion of his stimulus check is going to equipment to better work from home. “Normally, I’d ask my company to pay for equipment for work,” he said, “but in these current times, that’s been frowned upon."
Ian, the artist working in a gallery in New York City, says no one is buying art these days and starting next week he is furloughed through September. “I am lucky that my company is paying me though this Friday, because that will give me enough money to pay May rent. The stimulus check will then go towards June rent and food. I hope to receive unemployment, however New York is struggling to keep up with the demands."
His roommate, Paige, has also been unable to file for unemployment. She works in customer service and has been out of work for over a month. Phone lines to unemployment offices across the country have been jammed with over 22 million Americans filing for unemployment in the last four weeks, and many left unfiled. She said, “I still do not know a single friend who has received unemployment benefits from my state this past month.”
Ian added, “The federal stimulus check is critical to millions of people right now, especially in places where the systems setup cannot handle the situation at hand.”
While most of the people that I talked to needed the stimulus check for rent, food or adjusting to working from home, I talked to one person who reminded me that even people who aren’t in immediate need are still putting it to good use. “My pay hasn't changed, so I didn't need the money, but I also have a relatively modest salary so extra cash is always nice.”
Alec, a journalist who is working full time, said, “I already had a bit of savings built up, and since this is extra money that is meant to stimulate the economy I am planning to spend it soon after I receive it. I am going to go out to local restaurants more once they reopen, and I am going to buy products I want from other local businesses. I will also likely donate some to various causes I support.”
The stimulus check that is starting to show up in people’s bank accounts this week is helping people all over the country make ends meet, build a safety net, or give back to their community. In our current times news is unfolding at a rapid pace, scams and misinformation are all around, and many people are facing economic hardship. I urge everyone reading this to check in on at least one friend to make sure they have the resources to receive their stimulus check. Let’s all work together to make sure that this money gets into the hands of people who need it the most.
The hunt for (reasonably priced) hand sanitizer
By Olivia Sullivan, U.S. PIRG Education Fund Zero Waste associate
If you’re like me, you have been on the hunt for hand sanitizer and have had little luck. Grocery store shelves? Empty. Online retailers? Sold out or crazy expensive.
Price gouging on essential items like hand sanitizer is a major concern for people across America, and states are currently working on legislative efforts to monitor and combat this practice to protect consumers.
In the meantime, rather than travel to multiple different stores looking for hand sanitizer, there are many things you can do to get the products you need to stay safe without spending a fortune.
Following the lead of local distilleries and other companies, my mom decided to make homemade hand sanitizer using aloe vera, rubbing alcohol and essential oils -- and insists that we carry a bottle of her homemade mixture with us whenever we leave the house. If you decide to try this, follow the World Health Organization (WHO)’s recommended recipe to make sure your hand sanitizer will actually be effective. To kill coronavirus, your final mixture must contain at least 60 percent rubbing alcohol, so it’s best to use 91 percent rubbing alcohol to make your sanitizer.
While hand sanitizer works, washing your hands properly works even better, and poorly made DIY hand sanitizer may not work at all. However, hand sanitizer is useful when you don’t have easy access to soap and water, such as when you are grocery shopping, and DIY hand sanitizer may be the best option for those who cannot find it on store shelves.
Finally, hand sanitizer is not the only item affected by price gouging. Milk, toilet paper, medical equipment and other essential items that are less DIY-friendly are seeing their prices rise from coast to coast. The best thing you can do to ensure you purchase reasonably priced, effective supplies during this pandemic is learn how to avoid price gouging and know what to do if you see it.
Watch out for coronavirus scams!
By Rishi Shah, Maryland PIRG Education Fund associate
Over the last few weeks, there’s been drastic changes to most of our lives. One thing that’s still around, unfortunately, are phishing emails and scams. Scammers are taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic, launching a new wave of coronavirus-related tricks to cheat people out of their money and personal information.
The U.S. PIRG Education Fund recently released information about avoiding consumer scams during the coronavirus crisis. Here are some of the biggest scams that you should be avoiding:
1. Fake stimulus checks
If you receive a fake check, do not send back any money or personal information.
The Federal Trade Commission warns consumers to be cautious about fake check scams. For example:
The IRS will not send you an overpayment and ask you to send back money to cover this difference.
The IRS will not call, text or email you — don’t give away personal information!
The IRS will not call it a “stimulus” check, as the official term is “economic impact payment.”
These are just three examples, so make sure you know other common stimulus check scams.
2. Fake COVID-19 maps
Do not click on this map.
This scam displays a map of where coronavirus has hit throughout the world. It purports to come from Johns Hopkins University, but clicking on this downloads malware that steals your credentials.
3. Fake emails from the CDC
For this scam and any other phishing emails, you should delete the email immediately — do not respond to it nor click on any attachments/links.
“You are immediately advised to go through the cases above for safety hazard,” they claim. But the link can infect computers with malicious software that records every keystroke and sends it to the attackers, a tactic that allows them to monitor their victims’ every move online.
4. Fake emails from your workplace
One phishing email targets work emails and appears to come from individuals’ employers. It begins, “All, Due to the coronavirus outbreak, [company name] is actively taking safety precautions by instituting a Communicable Disease Management Policy.”
If you click on the fake company policy, you’ll download malicious software.
5. Fake health advice
These emails claim to offer health advice and information on how to stay safe from coronavirus. They might also claim that you have been exposed to the virus and include instructions to click links or download files to get tested.
6. Fake home testing kits and other products
As always, you should delete any texts or email immediately. Do not respond to them nor click on any attachments/links.
New claims are popping up everywhere selling home testing kits for the coronavirus and other “protective” items. These products haven’t been authorized by the FDA to test for or protect against the coronavirus and could fail to work properly or simply not arrive at all.
These are six of the biggest schemes out there, but be sure to check out more information about coronavirus-related scams. The U.S. PIRG Education Fund also has a full list of COVID-19 consumer tips to keep you and your loved ones safe during this crisis.