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Competition bureau joins battle against false COVID-19 claims, issuing warnings

Canada’s advertising watchdog continues to spot misleading and false marketing targeting people worried about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Text message and email scams, door-to-door visits from fake health officials, false claims about coronavirus prevention, and bogus cures have all come to the attention of the Competition Bureau of Canada in recent weeks. 

The bureau, which regulates advertising in this country, has issued 17 compliance warnings, primarily to do with misleading or false claims about masks, air purification filters and health.

“It can be extremely harmful. Canadians are increasingly fearful of the COVID-19 pandemic and are taking various steps to protect themselves,” the bureau’s deputy commissioner of deceptive marketing practices, Josephine Palumbo, told CBC News.

“And in this context of significant public health concerns, consumers are going to rely on those representations.”

Warnings issued, no sanctions yet

Fighting misinformation — and those who profit off it — has kept regulators busy over the past month since COVID-19 descended on Canada.

Last week, Health Canada reported it was trying to develop an online reporting mechanism to alert Canadians to concerning coronavirus claims, but that’s not yet live. The regulator told CBC News it had identified false claims that oregano oil, a concoction of mushrooms and a special anti-coronavirus hat could help prevent the illness.

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre reported receiving more than 75 complaints of COVID-19-related fraud or scams but estimated the number was far higher, as few people report to authorities.

This fraudulent text, purporting to be from the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, is one of several scams related to the COVID-19 crisis. (Thomas Daigle/CBC)

The Competition Bureau of Canada says it’s been able to resolve 11 of the 17 problems for which it’s issued warnings. In these cases, businesses pulled the products or advertisements, avoiding fines or jail time.

Six others remain outstanding. Palumbo said those ones could face stricter enforcement action but haven’t yet.

“The bureau is really doing everything in its power to crack down on those who are trying to take advantage of consumers or businesses during this very difficult time,” Palumbo said.

The bureau also declined to name the companies found to be spreading misleading or false advertising, citing privacy around its regulatory investigations.

In particular, the agency has zoomed in on fake at-home coronavirus testing kits — nothing of that kind has been approved in Canada — and masks advertised as being N95-certified, when they aren’t, the deputy commissioner said.

“There’s a number of things that that we’ve been informed about,” Palumbo said. “And … we’re cracking down.”

door knocking
The Competition Bureau of Canada says it has received reports about door-to-door visits from people falsely purporting to be health officials. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Investigators, acting on tips from the public and also by doing their own monitoring, found the false or misleading ads posted openly on websites and social media, she said.

Other issues that have popped include fake health officials going door to door, high-pressure sales at the door or on the phone and apps about COVID-19 that are phishing schemes to steal money or personal data.

“For us, the important thing is truth in advertising,” Palumbo said. “We’re not going to allow Canadians to be victimized.”

The Canadian government also announced efforts this week to combat misinformation during the pandemic. 

On Tuesday, the federal government signed a joint statement with the European Union to monitor for “foreign threats to our democracies, including the spread of disinformation and myths about the virus and efforts to undermine our unity.”

The Government of Canada is also considering introducing legislation to make it an offence to knowingly spread harmful misinformation.

These measures would be more wide-reaching than the options to address misleading claims through existing legislation that regulates, for example, the sale of health products and advertising of goods and services.

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