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Politics

Congress is unleashing the FTC on COVID-19 scammers

The second stimulus package will expand the FTC's authority to penalize companies promoting fake information and faulty products.

Congress is unleashing the FTC on COVID-19 scammers

The FTC will finally have the authority to immediately fine scammers touting fake COVID-19 treatments and lies about pandemic government benefits.

Photo: Al Drago/Getty Images

The FTC will finally have the authority to fine scammers touting fake COVID-19 treatments and lies about pandemic government benefits, thanks to new language in the economic stimulus package set to pass on Monday.

COVID-related scams proliferating online have overwhelmed government agencies and cost Americans more than $145 million since the beginning of the pandemic — and the FTC has been almost powerless to stop them, thanks to limitations on the agency's authority.

Now, the $900 billion coronavirus relief package is expected to include a provision enabling the FTC to penalize companies for promoting scams related to "the treatment, cure, prevention, mitigation or means of diagnosis of COVID-19" and "promises related to COVID-19 government benefits," according to bill text. The provision will ensure the agency has expanded authority to fine the companies up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for their first offense and demand refunds for customers who wasted money or divulged sensitive personal information.

Social media companies have announced new policies to crack down on misinformation surrounding COVID-19, but their platforms still regularly host scams purporting to advertise cures and vaccine access. Fraudsters are already beginning to promote early access to the COVID-19 vaccine in WhatsApp groups, online ads and robocalls, according to Pfizer's chief security officer.

"Predators are using the pandemic to take advantage of people when they are afraid and vulnerable," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who introduced the bill in the House. "The COVID-19 Consumer Protection Act gives the FTC the authority to go after COVID fraudsters and impose significant fines after the first offense. I'm glad we were able to include our bill in the COVID relief package. The FTC has long needed stronger tools to protect American consumers and deter bad actors during emergencies, and now it has them."

Health officials are bracing for a second spike in scams as the vaccine rolls out nationwide and Congress prepares to authorize a new round of stimulus payments. The new legislation won't go after platforms like Amazon for hosting bunk treatments, but it will give the government greater authority to go after the scammers themselves.

The FTC this year has sent more than 350 warning letters to companies and individuals it caught promoting false information and products about the pandemic, but lawmakers have criticized those efforts as toothless and limited. Warning letters don't get money back to consumers, and scammers can oftentimes launch new false campaigns under a different title. In response, the FTC asked for expanded civil penalty authority to after fraudsters.

"My view of the FTC is simple: You should be doing everything in your power to help Americans during this time of crisis," Sen. Maria Cantwell said during a hearing in August. "The COVID-19 pandemic has attracted bad actors and scam artists, including those who take advantage of people's fear and dire circumstances. We must move beyond warnings and threats in response to these unconscionable scams. We must see the FTC exercising real enforcement with real consequences to protect consumers and families when they are most vulnerable."

The COVID-19 Consumer Data Protection Act was originally introduced by Sen. Cantwell and co-sponsored by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker.

"Chairman Wicker is pleased to see this important measure included in the relief package," said a Senate Commerce Committee spokesperson. "The bill would protect consumers from scammers and other bad actors seeking to defraud them and exploit the pandemic for their own personal gain."

Cantwell also sought to include provisions cracking down on COVID-19 price-gouging in the latest relief package, but aides were unable to come to a consensus on that language, according to a Hill aide.

Does Elon Musk make Tesla tech?

Between the massive valuation and the self-driving software, Tesla isn't hard to sell as a tech company. But does that mean that, in 10 years, every car will be tech?

You know what's not tech and is a car company? Volkswagen.

Image: Tesla/Protocol

From disagreements about what "Autopilot" should mean and SolarCity lawsuits to space colonization and Boring Company tunnels, extremely online Tesla CEO Elon Musk and his company stay firmly in the news, giving us all plenty of opportunities to consider whether the company that made electric cars cool counts as tech.

The massive valuation definitely screams tech, as does the company's investment in self-driving software and battery development. But at the end of the day, this might not be enough to convince skeptics that Tesla is anything other than a car company that uses tech. It also raises questions about the role that timeliness plays in calling something tech. In a potential future where EVs are the norm and many run on Tesla's own software — which is well within the realm of possibility — will Tesla lose its claim to a tech pedigree?

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Becca Evans
Becca Evans is a copy editor and producer at Protocol. Previously she edited Carrie Ann Conversations, a wellness and lifestyle publication founded by Carrie Ann Inaba. She's also written for STYLECASTER. Becca lives in Los Angeles.

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J. Michael Evans
Michael Evans leads and executes Alibaba Group's international strategy for globalizing the company and expanding its businesses outside of China.
Protocol | Workplace

Apple isn’t the only tech company spooked by the delta variant

Spooked by rising cases of COVID-19, many tech companies delay their office reopening.

Apple and at least two other Silicon Valley companies have decided to delay their reopenings in response to rising COVID-19 case counts.

Photo: Luis Alvarez via Getty

Apple grabbed headlines this week when it told employees it would delay its office reopening until October or later. But the iPhone maker wasn't alone: At least two other Silicon Valley companies decided to delay their reopenings last week in response to rising COVID-19 case counts.

Both ServiceNow and Pure Storage opted to push back their September return-to-office dates last week, telling employees they can work remotely until at least the end of the year. Other companies may decide to exercise more caution given the current trends.

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Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.
Protocol | Workplace

Half of working parents have felt discriminated against during COVID

A new survey found that working parents at the VP level are more likely to say they've faced discrimination at work than their lower-level counterparts.

A new survey looks at discrimination faced by working parents during the pandemic.

Photo: d3sign/Getty Images

The toll COVID-19 has taken on working parents — particularly working moms — is, by now, well-documented. The impact for parents in low-wage jobs has been particularly devastating.

But a new survey, shared exclusively with Protocol, finds that among parents who kept their jobs through the pandemic, people who hold more senior positions are actually more likely to say they faced discrimination at work than their lower-level colleagues.

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Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Protocol | Enterprise

Alphabet goes deep into industrial robotic software with Intrinsic

If it succeeds, the gambit could help support Google Cloud's lofty ambitions in the manufacturing sector.

Alphabet is aiming to make advanced robotic technology affordable to customers.

Photo: Getty Images

Alphabet launched a new division Friday called Intrinsic, which will focus on building software for industrial robots, per a blog post. The move plunges the tech giant deeper into a sector that's in the midst of a major wave of digitization.

The goal of Intrinsic is to "give industrial robots the ability to sense, learn, and automatically make adjustments as they're completing tasks, so they work in a wider range of settings and applications," CEO Wendy Tan-White wrote in the post.

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Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

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