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First Federal COVID-19-Related Enforcement Action Filed as DOJ and FBI Commit to Preventing Fraud in the Nation’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

After U.S. Attorney General, William P. Barr[1] and the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued warnings this week regarding potential fraudulent schemes that are being perpetrated in the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, on Sunday, March 22, 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed its first enforcement action to shut down COVID-19-related fraud.  DOJ attorneys moved in federal court in Austin, Texas for a temporary restraining order against operators of a website, coronavirustestingkit.com, alleged to have engaged in a wire fraud scheme by offering consumers access to “free” World Health Organization (WHO) vaccine kits in exchange for a shipping charge, which required consumers to enter credit card information on the website.[2] The website stated that the kits “only” required water to administer the vaccine and provided testimonials from “recent users.” The government alleged that claims made on the website are false, as the WHO is not offering free vaccine kits and there is not yet a scientifically proven vaccine, and that the intent of the website is to gain access to consumer credit card information.

On March 16, 2020, U.S. Attorney General Barr directed in a memorandum to U.S. Attorneys that “[e]very U.S. Attorney’s Office is thus hereby directed to prioritize the detection, investigation, and prosecution of all criminal conduct” related to the COVID-19 outbreak.[3] Attorney General Barr advised, “the pandemic is dangerous enough without wrongdoers seeking to profit from public panic,” and therefore, such criminal conduct will not be tolerated.

Similarly, the FBI issued a Public Service Announcement on March 20, 2020, warning that “scammers are leveraging the COVID-19 pandemic” to perpetrate COVID-19-related internet based fraud schemes.[4]

Both DOJ and the FBI noted that there are individuals and businesses who are apparently exploiting the pandemic by:

  • selling fake cures for COVID-19 or treatments online;
  • sending phishing emails from entities posing as the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) designed to download malware or elicit personal identifying and financial information;
  • inserting malware into mobile apps designed to track and spread the virus to compromise devices and steal personal identifying information;
  • sending phishing emails asking for the verification of personal identification in order to receiving an economic stimulus check; and
  • selling counterfeit products such as sanitizing products, masks, goggles, gowns, gloves and medical supplies.

The U.S. Attorney’s Offices throughout the country are currently establishing COVID-19 Fraud Task Forces to investigate and prosecute coronavirus-related fraud, with other civil and criminal enforcement actions sure to follow. 

[1] https://www.justice.gov/coronavirus

[2] https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-files-its-first-enforcement-action-against-covid-19-fraudUnited States v. John Doe, a/k/a “coronavirusmedicalkit.com”, Civ. No. 1:20-CIV-306, (W.D. Tx.).

[3] https://www.justice.gov/ag/page/file/1258676/download

[4] https://www.ic3.gov/media/2020/200320.aspx

©2022 Epstein Becker & Green, P.C. All rights reserved.National Law Review, Volume X, Number 83

About this Author

Melissa Jampol, Epstein Becker Law Firm, Health Care Attorney

Melissa Jampol is a Member of the Firm in the Health Care and Life Sciences and Litigation practices, in the New York office of Epstein Becker Green. A former federal and state prosecutor, Ms. Jampol represents health care organizations, and their officers and directors, in a variety of enforcement matters at both the state and federal levels.

During her tenure as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey, Ms. Jampol served in the Health Care and Government Fraud, Violent Crime, and...

Elena Quattrone, Epstein Becker Law Firm, Health Care Attorney

ELENA M. QUATTRONE is an Associate in the Health Care and Life Sciences practice, in the New York office of Epstein Becker Green. 

Ms. Quattrone:

  • Assists health care clients in contracting for corporate formation, mergers, acquisitions, and various other business transactions

  • Advises clients on national and state-wide health care reform, including legislative and policy developments

  • Informs health care organizations about...