According to a press release by the Department of Justice (“DOJ”), numerous fraud schemes have developed related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a March 16 memo to U.S. attorneys, Attorney General William Barr directed the DOJ to “remain vigilant in detecting, investigating, and prosecuting wrongdoing related to the crisis.” Barr directed all U.S. attorneys to prioritize fraud related to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the DOJ, such fraud schemes include: 
  • Seeking charitable donations to nonexistent government and public health institutions
  • Creating fake website stores claiming to sell supplies in high demand (masks, hand sanitizer, etc.) but pocketing the cash instead of supplying the goods
  • Soliciting protected health information under the guise of public health officials
  • Embedding malware or viruses in coronavirus news and updates
  • Selling free test kits, treatments, cures, or vaccines
U.S. Attorney offices nationwide appear to be heeding Barr’s call to action. Many districts have issued press releases alerting citizens of common schemes. For example, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia BJay Pak issued a statement “urging the public to report suspected fraud schemes related to COVID-19” by contacting the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF). According to Pak’s press release, the NCDF “can receive and enter complaints into a centralized system that can be accessed by all U.S. Attorneys, as well as Justice Department litigating and law enforcement components to identify, investigate and prosecute fraud schemes.” Moreover, the NCDF “coordinates complaints with 16 additional federal law enforcement agencies, as well as state Attorneys general and local authorities.”
Other districts, including the Western District of Virginia, have created Coronavirus Fraud Task Forces. According to the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia, the task force is “focused on the fraud, not the amount of the loss, and will utilize all available tools and statutes to put bad actors in federal prison.”
The DOJ’s promise to go after such fraud is not hollow. Over the weekend, the DOJ took its first legal action against an alleged coronavirus scammer. In a civil complaint filed in Austin, Texas, the DOJ filed an emergency petition seeking a temporary restraining order against the operator of a website claiming to sell COVID-19 vaccine kits. The complaint alleged that the website was engaged in a wire fraud scheme that claimed to offer access to World Health Organization vaccine kits in exchange for paying only a $4.95 shipping fee, despite the fact that there currently is no COVID-19 vaccine. The court issued a temporary restraining order requiring the registrar of the website to immediately block public access to it. The Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Division announced that the DOJ “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,” and that this case is just the first example.