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The year in scams

If everything is a grift, is anything?

Photo illustration by William Joel / The Verge

In February, a cab driver in Northern California was transporting a 92-year-old woman to the bank when she told him she was taking out $25,000 to send to the IRS. The driver, Raj Singh, thought this sounded suspicious. Perhaps it was an IRS scam? The woman didn’t believe him, but she agreed to stop by the police station just in case. There, a law enforcement officer convinced her Singh was right — scammers were trying to steal her money. The woman went home, Singh got a $50 gift card for his troubles, and that was the last time anything good happened in 2020.

In the ensuing months, we’ve been through a pandemic, an economic crisis, senseless police shootings, nationwide protests, a tsunami of misinformation, and an extremely fraught election. Scammers haven’t slept on the opportunities. Moments of crisis are ripe for exploitation, and con artists have been capitalizing on the widespread confusion to present concrete solutions to our troubles. (Hint: the solutions typically involve sending the scammers lots of cash.)

In the background, the government has been running a grift of its own. Money for small businesses went to large corporations. The second stimulus check was promised and never delivered. The New York Times got a hold of Donald Trump’s tax returns, revealing he paid $750 his first year in the White House, far less than my last medical bill.

The system is rigged to benefit the top 1 percent, which makes low-level scammers more relatable. When the odds are stacked against you, it can be tempting to cut corners, legally speaking. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that the system is the real scam. Con artists are merely society’s id, acting out our worst instincts to get ahead.

Which brings us to March. The pandemic was not yet a pandemic, but things were starting to get weird. At the start of the month, I met up with José Castañeda, a Google spokesperson, for coffee and instinctively tried to shake his hand, which traumatized both of us because we didn’t have hand sanitizer. Neither here nor there, but that was also the last time I had human contact.

Out in Tennessee, two brothers were not so ill-prepared. On March 1st, Matt and Noah Colvin began driving around Chattanooga clearing out the hand sanitizer supply from every department store in the area, according to The New York Times. Then they went to Kentucky and did the same thing. All told, they ended up with 17,700 bottles of sterilizing goodness, which they listed on Amazon for $8 to $70 each. Amazon took down the items and started suspending sellers for price gouging. The brothers were either entrepreneurs or pandemic profiteers, depending on how you interpret the American Dream.

By April, economic prospects were even worse, and 20.5 million Americans lost their jobs. The government decided to send $1,200 checks to people who made less than $99,000 (or less than $136,500 as a household), but then the checks were delayed because Trump needed to have his name printed on every single one. Genius PR stunt, but dick move. There was supposed to be a second stimulus check, but that hasn’t happened because politicians are constitutionally incapable of doing anything useful after the Thanksgiving holiday.

In the meantime, the government announced it was handing out $670 billion in forgivable loans for small businesses, as part of the Paycheck Protection Program, meant to keep workers on payroll. The money ran out quickly and many small businesses were left to die, partly because massive restaurant chains like Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Shake Shack somehow qualified for $20 million and $10 million, respectively. (Both companies were eventually shamed into returning the money.) Other recipients included private equity firms and companies with close ties to President Trump, according to Vox. Just a coincidence, I am sure.

As businesses stayed shuttered and life moved permanently online, grifters hawked fake COVID-19 cures on all the big tech platforms. There were faux N95 masks on Amazon, fake COVID-19 pills on Instagram, dubious nose-only masks on Kickstarter, and dangerous bleach-drinking videos on YouTube. Tech companies banned health misinformation but had varying degrees of success in actually keeping it off the platforms.

The one bright spot in recent weeks has been that Pfizer and Moderna applied for emergency Food and Drug Administration authorizations for their COVID-19 vaccines. This could stop scammers who were calling people to try to get them to reserve a vaccine over the phone. But then again, probably not. Before the announcements, scammers were claiming to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now, they can say they’re with the drug companies. It’s 2020, after all, and people are nothing if not adaptable.