Residents throughout Brazoria County have reported at least two crews of con artists and scammers preying on the fear and uncertainty created by the pandemic.
The city of Alvin issued has warned residents to be on the lookout for suspicious phone calls, texts and emails relating to the stimulus check.
"Communications requesting personal or financial information in order to receive the check are not legitimate," reads the city's warning.
Another scam has popped up in Manvel where the city recieved reports that individuals are going door-to-door offering to do home-testing for coronavirus.
City employees issued a statement on March 19 informing residents that no indiviudal or company was authorized to offer such service.
Also the service is a scam. COVID-19 can't be transmitted by water.
Manvel wasn't the only Brazoria County city to receive reports of scammers trying to prey on people.
In Sweeney, two men in a gray Mercedes came to a resident's home and claimed to have been contracted by the city to test water for COVID-19, according to Sweeney City Manager Reese Cook.
The men insisted on gaining access to the resident's home. The resident denied the men entry, but provided them with a water sample.
The men told the resident that the sample tested positive and provided a form that needed to be filled out.
The resident refused to complete the form because it asked for personal, identifying information — including a Social Security number — Cook said.
COVID-19 is an airborne, respiratory virus and there is no evidence that it can be transferred or contracted through water, according to the CDC.
"There is no evidence of survival of the COVID-19 virus in drinking water or sewage," said Terry Benton, vice president of operations for SouthWest Water Company.
He added that even in the midst of a pandemic it is "safe to continue drinking and using water directly from their tap as usual."
"The United States has one of the safest drinking water supplies in the world," Benton said. "Our drinking water is treated and disinfected before it arrives at our tap."
Despite the fact that, unlike Cholera, COVID-19 is not a waterborne disease, Cook provided area residents with clarification.
There is no way to test water for the Novel Coronavirus, he said.
If a test of the city's water supply was being performed it would be performed by public works employees, he added.
Public works employees all wear uniforms and drive city vehicles, Cook said.
After the city of Sweeney put out an alert about the scammers, police in West Columbia received word that two men in a gray Mercedes were offering to test water for COVID-19.
Fake water testing isn't the only scam being perpetrated in Brazoria County these days.
The Brazoria County Sheriff's Office posted a warning to its FaceBook page advising residents to be wary of a crew running an asphalt driveway scam.
The scam is used nationwide and involves someone offering to pave a driveway with asphalt leftover from another job.
The scammer offers the homeowner the paving service at a rate well below market value.
After the homeowner and the crew's foreman agree on a price the crew will pave about half of the driveway and then demand additional funds to pave the rest.
Sometimes the cost of finishing the project can reach two or three times the cost quoted.
The driveway paving scam has been documented for more than a decade and across the U.S.
This year alone reports of the paving scam popped up in the Boston-area in February and Seattle in March.
Because the asphalt paving scam is so pervasive there's no reason to think the crew in Brazoria County is related to crews on either coast.
The scam is so pervasive that the Wisconsin Attorney General issued a warning to residents advising them that if someone comes to their doorstep about asphalt paving or sealing they need to " turn the workers away and contact local law enforcement."
One of the things that is unique about the crew working Brazoria County is that they are claiming to be county employees.
The crew is impersonating road and bridge workers and offering to use asphalt leftover from a county project to pave private driveways.
In Texas, as in most states, it is illegal for governmental entities to perform maintenance on private property.
Texas takes disposal of government property so seriously that the chapter of the government code dealing with surplus material has 26 sub-chapters, the last being Subchapter Z — which alone has nine chapters.
If an individual claims to be a county employee and wants to perform any function on private property there are certain things to look for, according to a statement from Brazoria County.
"All County employees have [an] ID card and uniforms with the County Seal," said Steve Rosa, the county's emergency management coordinator.
He added that all county employees will be driving county vehicles, all of which have the County Seal on the doors.
Both the water testing crew and the asphalt driveway scammers are “disgusting lowlifes,” according to Brazoria County Judge Matt Sebesta.
“Any time there is a crisis there will be these lowlifes that will try to scam people out of their hard earned money,” Sebesta said. “They will always want to take advantage of people.”
If caught, both groups of scammers could face serious repercussions.
Each group could be charged with deceptive trade practices — a class A misdemeanor that carries up to one year in county jail and up to a $4,000 fine.
The asphalt driveway crew could also face charges for impersonating a county employee.
Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne is working to put together a public service announcement to warn residents about some common scams.
Yenne offered county residents basic advice about how to avoid getting ripped off.
She pointed out that scammers are always looking for a new angle and that, in times of crisis, "people aren’t thinking clearly."
"Don’t give [out] your personal information," Yenne said.
She added that if members of either crew are caught they could "be in for a rude awakening."
Both scam crews are on the radar of local law enforcement agencies.
Sweeney Police Capt. Chad Makara and West Columbia Police Chief Paul Odin are each looking for information about the water testing duo.
Individuals who have questions about people claiming to represent a governmental entity are asked to call their local law enforcement agency's non-emergency number.
Complaints about possible fraud can also be sent to the Texas Attorney General's office through the agency's consumer protection website.
The AG's office also issued a reminder that not only are common scams more prevalent during emergencies, price gouging is also a common occurence.
More than 4,000 price gouging complaints were filed with the AG"s office by March 31.
As always, there are scammers looking for personal and financial information.
"County residents are also urged not to give out personal information," Rosa said.
Another scam making the rounds in Brazoria County involves recieving a text that suggests a prson was in contact with someeone who tested positive for COVID-19.
The text then directs recipients to various websites that harvest personal information.
The Manvel Police Department warned area residents to "be skeptical of uncolicited emails or texts related to the virus."
Within Alvin there have also been reports of unwanted and unpermited solicitors selling items that they claim are cleaning supplies.
Although unsolicited door-to-door sales don't generally qualify as a 'scam,' per se, the city of Alvin is asking anyone who receives an unwarranted knock at the door to report it to the policefor a permit violation.
"Soliciting in the City of Alvin requires a permit," reads a written statment from the city.
"There are no active permits and the issuance of permits has been suspended during the Stay Safe at Home order."
The scope and breadth of the scams reported in Brazoria County isn't unusual.
The Federal Trade Commission says Texans have made 1,164 complaints relating to COVID-19 scams, as of April 14.
The number of complaints filed with the FTC by Texas residents makes the state in the third most targeted in the country, California leads the nation in scam complaints with Florida coming in second.
The FTC reports that COVID-19 related frauds are responsible for a loss of $13.44 million across the country.
As is often the case, the top frauds have been travel and online shopping scams.
Within Texas, 583 of the complaints made to the FTC have been determined to be fraud. So far 57 of those complaints were reported as "do not call" scams, anbother 102 were identity theft and the rest fall under the FTC's "other" category.
Although the FTC may classify most scams as "other," the U.S. Department of Justice has a laundry list of reported scams.
On March 24, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas — which includes Brazoria County — issued a warning to area residents to be wary of everything ranging from treatment scams to stock scams.
One of the most common scams is the sale of fake testing kits, treatments or cures for COVID-19.
Scams are such a high priority that the the Southern District of Texas has a designated U.S. Attorney to handle COVID-19 fraud cases.
Scams aren't just targeted to consumers, the FBI issued a warning about advance fee scams targeting the health care industry and state governments.
"The FBI recently became aware of multiple incidents in which state government agencies, attempting to procure such equipment, wire transferred funds to fraudulent brokers and sellers in advance of receiving the items," reads the warning.
The pandmic has proven to be a goldmine for scammers, accoridng to a recent article by Michael D’Ambrosio, assitant director of the Secret Service's Office of Investigations, and Terry Wade, executive assistant director of the FBI's Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services.
"The sheer variety of frauds already uncovered is itself shocking," the duo wrote.
"Law enforcement has already learned of offers of sham treatments and vaccines, bogus investment opportunities in non-existent medical companies, and calls from crooks impersonating doctors demanding payment for treatments."
Scammers aren't just selling snakeoil, junk stocks and pretending to be legitimate doctors — they are also targeting people trying to apply for unemployment, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.
"There can be unemployment insurance scams and fraudulent phone calls," reads a statement from TWC.
Legitimate TWC representative may call individuals who have applied for unemployment and ask for a Social Security number and date of birth.
However, TWC representatives will never ask for a credit card number or say that there is a fee to process an unemployment claim.