Gov. Ron DeSantis received a bill Thursday to protect consumers against fraud and scams during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sponsored by Republican Rep. Ardian Zika of Pasco County, the bill (HB 9) was the first measure to pass in the House during the 2021 Legislative Session and cleared both chambers with unanimous votes.
“This is an important piece of legislation that protects our consumers against fraud during a pandemic,” Zika told House members.
The proposal establishes criminal penalties and authorizes civil remedies from fraud as consumers seek vaccines or send personal protective equipment (PPE) during a pandemic.
It also stiffens penalties against fake websites and fraudulent COVID-19 ploys. In many instances, swindlers offer vaccine access in exchange for money.
Further, the bill would prohibit disseminating false or misleading vaccine or PPE information with the intent to defraud.
Federal, state and local officials have warned Florida consumers to be wary of offers advertising special access to the COVID-19 vaccine or personal protective equipment in exchange for money or other valid valuable consideration.
Shortly after officials first identified the COVID-19 virus in Florida, Attorney General Ashley Moody began warning of coronavirus scams in the Sunshine State over a year ago. Scammers try to exploit people’s fears about the pandemic to rip them off.
As of April, the South Florida U.S. Attorney’s Office filed 38 COVID-19 financial fraud cases, with dollar amounts approaching $75 million.
Nationally, more than 19,000 new websites selling PPE emerged as the COVID-19 pandemic took root in the U.S., resulting in numerous reports of sites taking orders, accepting payment, and failing to deliver products, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
While some of the pandemic scams can be prosecuted under current state law, stopping other fraudulent activity has been difficult. As proponents explained, state laws aren’t equipped to handle vaccine-related frauds.
The bill aims to solve those problems by new crimes.