In response to the evidence that fraud schemes are being developed around the country to exploit the coronavirus epidemic, U.S. Attorney David C. Joseph announced today that he has formed a task force in the Western District of Louisiana to identify, investigate, prosecute, and dismantle fraud schemes designed to unlawfully profit from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Western District of Louisiana’s COVID-19 Fraud Task Force (Task Force) brings together multiple federal investigative agencies under the leadership of the U.S. Attorney’s Office to share and receive intelligence related to the scams being perpetrated on-line and in-person by individuals seeking to exploit the evolving public health crisis. The Task Force will then marshal the collective investigative power of our federal law enforcement agencies by forming joint investigative teams to work with prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The Task Force will be led by the U.S. Attorney’s Office COVID-19 Fraud Coordinator, Assistant U.S. Attorney Seth D. Reeg. The Task Force members include representatives from the United States Attorney’s Office, FBI, U.S. Department of Homeland Security – Office of Inspector General, U.S. Food and Drug Administration – Criminal Investigations, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations/ Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Department of Veteran’s Administration – Office of Inspector General, United States Secret Service, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – Office of Inspector General, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Federal Trade Commission, and the Small Business Administration – Office of Inspector General.
“The public should know that my office remains fully operational during the COVID-19 pandemic and will be focusing on those who seek to unlawfully exploit others during this difficult time,” said U.S. Attorney Joseph. “The last thing our community needs as we come together to fight this pandemic are certain individuals among us preying upon the fears of others for financial gain. Through the formation of this Task Force, federal prosecutors from my office will collaborate on a daily basis with investigators to identify, investigate, and aggressively prosecute those attempting to profit from this emergency. I want to thank all of the agencies and federal agents that are joining us in this effort – each of which brings considerable expertise to the fight.”
The Task Force will review and investigate all credible leads of fraud associated with the coronavirus pandemic, focusing on those hoarding or price-gouging critical medical supplies and schemes designed to exploit vulnerable populations, including the elderly and those who may be more susceptible to the disease due to pre-existing health conditions. The Task Force will also prioritize schemes that have the potential to endanger public health and safety. AUSA Reeg will meet and confer with agency counterparts on a regular basis to prioritize cases and surge resources where needed.
Some examples of COVID-19 scams include:
- Unlawful Hoarding and Price-Gouging: The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has designated certain health and medical resources necessary to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic as “scarce,” including respirator masks, ventilators, and other medical protective equipment. These designated materials are subject to the hoarding prevention measures that trigger both criminal and civil remedies. Yesterday, U.S. Attorney Joseph sent a letter to area hospitals and medical providers requesting information regarding any known hoarding or price-gouging of critical medical supplies.
- Testing Scams: Scammers are selling fake at-home test kits or going door-to-door performing fake tests for money.
- Treatment Scams: Scammers are offering to sell fake cures, vaccines, and advice on unproven treatments for COVID-19.
- Supply Scams: Scammers are creating fake shops, websites, social media accounts, and email addresses claiming to sell medical supplies currently in high demand, such as surgical masks. When consumers attempt to purchase supplies through these channels, fraudsters pocket the money and never provide the promised supplies.
- Provider Scams: Scammers are also contacting people by phone and email, pretending to be doctors and hospitals that have treated a friend or relative for COVID-19, and demanding payment for that treatment.
- Charity Scams: Scammers are soliciting donations for individuals, groups, and areas affected by COVID-19.
- Phishing Scams and Cyber Intrusions: Scammers posing as national and global health authorities, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are sending phishing emails designed to trick recipients into clicking on a link or opening an attachment that downloads malware, or providing personal identifying financial information. One form of malware being spread contains an interactive online map of coronavirus-infected areas purportedly produced by Johns Hopkins University. Once someone downloads this interactive map, the malware steals the user’s credentials, such as usernames, credit card numbers, passwords, and other sensitive information usually stored in internet browsers.
- App Scams: Scammers are also creating and manipulating mobile apps designed to track the spread of COVID-19 to insert malware that will compromise users’ devices and personal information.
- Investment Scams: Scammers are offering online promotions on various platforms, including social media, claiming that the products or services of publicly traded companies can prevent, detect, or cure COVID-19, and that the stock of these companies will dramatically increase in value as a result. These promotions are often styled as “research reports,” make predictions of a specific “target price,” and relate to microcap stocks, or low-priced stocks issued by the smallest of companies with limited publicly available information.
$1,000 Check Scams: Scammers are contacting people over email and are telling them that their $1,000 check, as part of the stimulus package responding to COVID-19, is already waiting for them and that all they need to do is to provide personal information, such as bank account numbers and Social Security Numbers, which are the key pieces of information needed to perpetrate identity theft.
Other scams include fraudsters claiming to work for the government or banks/credit cards and offering assistance for student loan relief, foreclosure or eviction relief, unemployment assistance, debt relief, and direct financial assistance, like government checks.
U.S. Attorney Joseph urges everyone, especially those most at risk of serious illness, to avoid these and similar scams by taking the following steps:
- 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 the anti-malware and anti-virus software on your computer is operating and up to date.
- Ignore offers for a COVID-19 vaccine, cure, or treatment. Remember, if there is a medical breakthrough, you won’t 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.
- 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.
- 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.
For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) websites.
Leaders from the federal law enforcement agencies participating in the Task Force provided the following comments in support of the mission:
According to Joseph Cuffari, PhD., Inspector General, Department of Homeland Security, “The theft of FEMA funds resulting from COVID-19 schemes or false claims result in losses not only to the U.S. Taxpayer, but also to the actual victims who needed those funds to recover. Working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General will continue our commitment to identify and aggressively investigate allegations of fraud. Theft of funds from DHS programs intended to help those in need will not be tolerated.”
“The FDA is fully committed to working with our federal partners to protect Americans from fraudulent and potentially dangerous medical products being marketed and distributed to Americans for the treatment or diagnosis of COVID-19. We will continue to take appropriate action to protect consumers from bad actors who take advantage of a crisis and place profits ahead of the public health,” said Judith A. McMeekin, Pharm.D., Associate Commissioner for Regulatory Affairs, U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“Even through a worldwide pandemic, the FBI remains steadfast in our mission to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution,” said Special Agent in Charge Bryan A. Vorndran of the FBI New Orleans Field Office. “Special Agents and Analysts of the WDLA COVID-19 Task Force are committed to investigating all forms of COVID-19 fraud committed on Louisiana residents. Any company or individual who attempts to defraud our residents and steal their money during this national crisis will be investigated and brought to justice.”
“Our HSI agents are deeply committed to the safety of the American public, whether it’s investigating and dismantling human trafficking operations or ensuring our medical communities are receiving legitimate medical equipment and supplies to combat the spread of Covid-19,” said New Orleans Special Agent in Charge Jere T. Miles. “Those who would use this pandemic to defraud their neighbors, friends, and communities for their own financial gain – we will be looking for you and we will find you.”
“The VA Office of Inspector General is dedicated to preserving the integrity of the public funds and medical resources intended to treat all veterans, including those impacted by COVID-19, and is pleased to join the U.S. Attorney’s Office and other federal law enforcement agencies in establishing this partnership.” – James Ross, Special Agent in Charge, VA Office of Inspector General, South Central Field Office.
If you believe you have been a target or victim of a scam or fraud or have knowledge of any hoarding or price-gouging of critical medical supplies, you can report it without leaving your home, to the National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline at 1-866-720-5721 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Western District of Louisiana Coronavirus Fraud Coordinator, AUSA Seth Reeg, can be reached at: (318) 676-3600.