On March 16, 2020, United States Attorney General William Barr issued a memo directing all U.S. Attorneys to prioritize the detection, investigation, and prosecution of COVID-19-related fraud, amid reports of scams, malware, and other fraudulent efforts designed to capitalize on the pandemic. The DOJ announced the filing of its first enforcement action against COVID-19 fraud only days later.
The Attorney General’s memo directs all United States Attorneys of each state and federal territory to “prioritize the detection, investigation, and prosecution of all criminal conduct related to the [COVID-19] pandemic.” The memo details that the DOJ has received reports of individuals and entities engaging in fraud aimed to capitalize particularly on the COVID-19 pandemic. The types of fraud and scams referenced include:
- Persons and business selling fake COVID-19 cures online;
- Phishing emails from entities posing as the World Health Organization (“WHO”) and Center for Disease Control and Prevention (the “CDC”);
- Malware, malicious websites, and apps that purport to share COVID-19-related information, but which are actually veiled tools to gain access to users’ devices and information, including for payment;
- Malware penetration of legitimate websites used to track the spread of and statistics related to COVID-19, which are of course heavily frequented given the need for up-to-date information; and
- Scams seeking donations for illegitimate or non-existent charitable organizations.
Just days after the Attorney General issued the memo prioritizing prosecution of COVID-19 fraud, the DOJ announced the filing of its first enforcement action against such fraud. On March 21, 2020, the DOJ filed a complaint and temporary restraining order in Austin, Texas against the operators of a fraudulent website (coronavirusmedicalkit.com), who were engaging in a wire fraud scheme purporting to provide WHO vaccine kits in exchange for a shipping charge. The website was shuttered immediately pending a final determination of the case.
The DOJ anticipates scams and other fraudulent efforts designed to capitalize on the widespread confusion, fear, and misinformation relating to COVID-19 will increase in frequency and methods.
The DOJ has advised that if you think you or your business are a victim of a scam or attempted COVID-19 fraud, you should: