Missouri's attorney general warns against swine flu scams

Tuesday, May 5, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — Missouri's attorney general and consumer groups are warning the public about swine flu scams that have surfaced on the Internet and elsewhere in recent days.

Missouri had fewer than a dozen confirmed and probable cases of swine flu as of Monday, and the United States has had only one reported death — that of a young boy who was visiting Texas from Mexico City.

But scam artists have seized on the chance to make a quick buck off people's fear of the illness.

In a telephone interview Monday, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said his office has heard of a few different schemes, including Internet ads offering basic items at drastically inflated prices.

For example, Koster said, one site is selling 200 paper masks — which it labels "pandemic respirators" — for $325.

Another site is selling a $179 "pandemic flu kit" containing such items as an antiseptic wash.

"These are gimmicks clearly intended to prey on those frightened by the situation," he said.

Businesses have also been targeted.

Koster said a restaurant owner in the southwest Missouri town of Bolivar received a call from someone saying the business was required by the Department of Homeland Security to buy a swine flu test kit for $479.

No such requirement exists, Koster said, and the scammer tried to get a credit card number over the phone. Koster's office is investigating.

Missourians who think they have encountered a scam can call the attorney general's consumer protection hot line at 800-392-8222.

The Better Business Bureau in St. Louis hadn't received any complaints as of Monday about businesses in eastern Missouri or southern Illinois engaging in swine flu-related scams. But the organization was concerned about unscrupulous money-making scams related to swine flu.

"What we typically see is when people are fearful for their own safety, or the safety of their family, there are people willing to take advantage of that fear," said Chris Thetford, a Better Business Bureau spokesman.

The information that people need about the swine flu is available at no cost from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Thetford said.

To avoid being scammed, the Better Business Bureau recommended:

  • Avoid opening e-mail from an unknown source, and do not click on links in the e-mail.
  • No vaccine for swine flu exists, so disregard offers for swine flu vaccinations.
  • Make sure that anti-spyware and anti-virus programs on computers are up-to-date.

Health organizations say good hygiene, such as washing hands with soap and water, remains the best approach for preventing swine flu.

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