Justice Department protects Eastern District of Texas from COVID-19 fraudsters

Published 1:16 pm Thursday, March 26, 2020

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SHERMAN, Texas – On March 13, 2020, President Donald J. Trump declared the outbreak of COVID-19 (the coronavirus) in the United States to be a national emergency. Unfortunately, criminals and scammers are trying to take advantage of the crisis for their own profit. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Texas through its United States Attorney, Joseph D. Brown, has made it a top priority to detect, investigate, and prosecute anyone who attempts to exploit the anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak to defraud other people.

“The public needs to be careful during the coming weeks to not fall victim to criminals who will try to take advantage of this health crisis,” said United States Attorney Brown.  “The Justice Department has made it a priority to stop scams and frauds, and we will move aggressively against anyone who does that.  We encourage anyone who becomes aware of a potential fraud, to report it.”

Scammers have already devised numerous methods for defrauding people in connection with COVID-19.  They are setting up websites, contacting people by phone and email, and posting disinformation on social media platforms.  To report fraud, please contact:

  • National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF):
    Telephone hotline:1-866-720-5721
    Email address:  disaster@leo.gov
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI): 
    Submit a complaint online at https://tips.fbi.gov/
    For cyber or internet related scams, submit your complaint at https://www.ic3.gov/default.aspx
    Telephone:  1-800-CALL-FBI (225-5324)
  • EDTX COVID-19 Fraud Coordinator, Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Coan 
    Telephone:  903-590-1400

Some examples of scams linked to COVID-19 include:

  • Treatment scams: Scammers are selling fake vaccines, medicines, tests, and cures for COVID-19.
  • Supply scams: Scammers are claiming they have in-demand products, like cleaning, household, health, and medical supplies.  When an order is placed, the scammer takes the money and never delivers the order.
  • Charity scams: Scammers are fraudulently soliciting donations for non-existent charities to help people affected by the COVID-19 crisis.  Scammers often use names that are similar to the names of real charities.
  • Phishing scams: Scammers, posing as national and global health authorities such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are sending fake emails or texts to trick the recipient into sharing their personal information, including account numbers, Social Security numbers, or login IDs and passwords.
  • App scams: Scammers are creating mobile apps designed to track the spread of COVID-19 to insert malware that will compromise users’ devices and steal personal information.
  • Provider scams: Scammers pretending to be doctors and hospitals that have treated a friend or relative for COVID-19 and demand payment for that treatment.
  • Investment scams: Scammers are promoting the stock of small companies, which have limited publicly-available information, using false or misleading claims that the companies’ stock will increase dramatically due to the COVID-19 outbreak, such as claims that a company can prevent, detect, or cure COVID-19.
  • Price gouging: Individuals and businesses selling essential goods, like hand sanitizer, for significantly higher prices than in a non-emergency setting.

The public can take the following steps to help protect against these scams:

  • Independently verify the identity of any company, charity, or individual that contacts you regarding COVID-19.
  • Check the websites and email addresses offering information, products, or services related to COVID-19.  Be aware that scammers often employ addresses that differ only slightly from those belonging to the entities they are impersonating. For example, they might use “cdc.com” or “cdc.org” instead of “cdc.gov.”
  • 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.
  • Do not click on links or open email attachments from unknown or unverified sources.  Doing so could download a virus onto your computer or device.
  • Make sure that the anti-malware and anti-virus software on your computer is operating and up to date.
  • Ignore social media and email offers for a COVID-19 vaccine, cure, or treatment. Remember, if there is a medical breakthrough, you will not hear about it for the first time through an email, online ad, or unsolicited sales pitch.
  • Check online reviews of any company offering COVID-19 products or supplies.  Avoid companies whose customers have complained about not receiving items.
  • Research any charities or crowdfunding sites soliciting donations in connection with COVID-19 before giving. 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 (https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/how-donate-wisely-and-avoid-charity-scams).
  • Be wary of any business, charity, or individual requesting payments or donations in cash, by wire transfer, gift card, or through the mail.  Do not send money through any of these channels.
  • Be cautious of “investment opportunities” tied to COVID-19, especially those based on claims that a small company’s products or services can help stop the virus.  If you decide to invest, carefully research the investment beforehand.  For information on how to avoid investment fraud, visit the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) website (https://www.investor.gov/protect-your-investments/fraud/how-avoid-fraud/what-you-can-do-avoid-investment-fraud).

The United States Attorney’s Office also cautions against individuals or businesses that may have accumulated medical supplies or devices beyond what they reasonably need on a daily basis for the purpose of selling them in excess of prevailing market prices.  It is illegal to acquire medical supplies and devices designated by the Secretary of Health and Human Services as scarce in order to hoard them or sell them for excessive prices.  Although no items have yet been so designated, the process for such designation is underway, and it is anticipated that certain supplies will be designated in the near future.

This does not mean that the Justice Department will pursue regular Americans who are stocking up on the necessities of daily life or businesses acquiring materials reasonably needed for their own use.  Similarly, no action will be taken against manufacturers or suppliers who are working with the government and health care providers to combat this crisis.   However, bad actors who amass critical supplies either far beyond what they could use or for the purpose of profiteering will be aggressively pursued.  Scarce medical supplies need to be going to hospitals for immediate use in care, not to warehouses for later overcharging.

For the most up to date information on the COVID-19 outbreak and the federal response, check https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.