Let’s be clear: There is no vaccine yet to prevent COVID-19.
But there are swindlers around the world trying to cash in on COVID-19 fears with bogus prophylactics and cures. They steal money from their victims and spread misinformation, says Christopher Combs, special agent in charge of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s San Antonio field office.
But Combs and his colleagues at the U.S. Department of Justice are working to put a stop to such fraud. In late March, following a complaint from Texas, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman issued a temporary order to shut down a website collecting payments to ship bogus “vaccine kits.” This was the first Department of Justice action in a U.S. federal court to stop coronavirus-related fraud. It likely won’t be the last.
Global scam artists are not only selling phony vaccines and cures but also sending phishing emails that purport to be from reputable public health organizations but in fact insert malware on mobile phones through bogus apps.
“We will use every resource at the government’s disposal to act quickly to shut down these most despicable of scammers, whether they are defrauding consumers, committing identity theft or delivering malware,” said Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt.
The operators of the temporarily shuttered, Texas-based website charged $4.95 to ship the vaccine kits, which they claimed were free from the World Health Organization and could be administered after adding water.
The Department of Justice is prioritizing coronavirus-related rackets and says the shuttered site’s operators sought to profit from people’s confusion about and fear of COVID-19. The department is seeking to permanently bar the website.
In a proactive effort to protect vulnerable consumers, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina, through a partnership with Meals on Wheels, taught 1,300 seniors to hang up on robocalls, research any coronavirus-related cause before donating money to it, ignore links from unknown sources and visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website for accurate information about COVID-19.
“Protecting our communities … will remain one of the FBI’s highest priorities,” Combs said.