LUTZ, Fla. — A bill targeting criminals behind COVID-19 vaccine scams has been fast-tracked in the Florida House of Representatives.
What You Need To Know
- House Bill 9 makes COVID-19 vaccine scams a third degree felony
- Pandemics and Public Emergencies Committee is expected to vote on the bill on January 14
- Bill is expected to be discussed on the House floor in March
“Florida House of Representatives wants to send a loud and clear message that we will come after fraudsters very hard and our priority is to make sure that we’re protecting consumers," said State Rep. Ardian Zika (R - Dist. 37), who filed the bill on Thursday.
House Bill 9 would make it a third degree felony to spread false information about the availability of a COVID-19 vaccine to try to get money or someone's personal information. Zika said those convicted could face up to five years in prison. A second violation would bump it up to a second degree felony. The bill also authorizes the attorney general to to seek civil remedies.
This week, the Florida Dept. of Health in Pasco and Pinellas Counties each tweeted alerts that a fake Eventbrite listing was offering fake COVID-19 registrations.
Some counties have used Eventbrite for their own registrations, but the fake account wanted people to pay for the normally free appointments. Attorney General Ashley Moody's office issued a consumer alert warning on Thursday about the scams.
"Unfortunately, it's not a surprise. The fraudsters are always looking at where people’s attention is and also looking for where there may be desperate people looking to take any chance they can in order to access something. In this case, it’s the vaccine," said AARP Florida State Director Jeff Johnson.
Johnson said his organization has heard from some members about the scam, but so far, it doesn't look like any were taken in by it. Johnson said because each county is handling the vaccine rollout a little differently, scammers may be more likely to net victims.
"In the absence of a clear and transparent process for people to know where they should go to register to sign up to get the vaccine, people are desperately looking across the internet for anything that might look legitimate," said Johnson.
Johnson said AARP isn't weighing in on legislation expected to be discussed in the state legislature's upcoming session just yet.
“More generally, I would say that anything we can do to dissuade fraudsters and also to make sure that those who do perpetrate this sort of fraud pay for that," Johnson said.
Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls pledged strong support for the legislation. The House Pandemics and Public Emergencies Committee is expected to vote on HB9 on January 14. The state legislative session begins March 2 and Zika expects the bill will be discussed on the House floor that month.