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Fighting Fraud in the Wake of COVID-19

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Fighting Fraud in the Wake of COVID-19

The federal government continues to develop responses to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic and now turns toward combatting COVID-19 related fraud. Attorney General Barr issued a memo on March 16, 2020 calling on all U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) attorneys to prioritize the detection, investigation, and prosecution of wrongdoing related to COVID-19. Following Attorney General Barr’s instruction, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois appointed a federal prosecutor to lead the district’s crackdown of scammers attempting to leverage the pandemic for fraudulent purposes. U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the country are expected to follow this path to coordinate with federal, state, and local law enforcement partners to lead fraud investigations and enforcement.

In a March 22, 2020 DOJ press release (the “Press Release”), the DOJ detailed its first enforcement action against operators of a fraudulent COVID-19 related website. The website, “coronavirusmedicalkit.com,” engaged in a wire fraud scheme according to the DOJ, purporting to sell a vaccine for the disease. The website “claimed to offer consumers access to World Health Organization vaccine kits in exchange for a shipping charge of $4.95, which consumers would pay by entering their credit card information on the website” while in fact there are currently no legitimate vaccines.

While the DOJ is ramping up fraud investigations and enforcement, they also warned the public to be extra-cautious. With a large portion of the workforce now working online, e-mail and other online services continue to be a favorite target for fraud. The Press Release listed the following suggestions to help individuals and businesses avoid scammers:

  • Independently verify the identity of any company, charity, or individual that contacts you regarding COVID-19.
  • Be wary of unsolicited emails offering information, supplies, or treatment for COVID-19 or requesting your personal information for medical purposes. Legitimate health authorities will not contact the general public this way.
  • Research any charities or crowdfunding sites soliciting donations in connection with COVID-19 before giving any donation. Remember, an organization may not be legitimate even if it uses words like “CDC” or “government” in its name or has reputable looking seals or logos on its materials.  For online resources on donating wisely, visit the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) website.
  • Be wary of any business, charity, or individual requesting payments or donations in cash, by wire transfer, gift card, or through the mail. Don’t send money through any of these channels.1

The DOJ also advises that suspected fraud be reported to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at: https://www.ic3.gov/default.aspx.

A link to the March 20, 2020 press release is available here: link.

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1The U.S. Dept. of Justice, Justice Department Files Its First Enforcement Action Against COVID-19 Fraud, March 22, 2020.