The Department Of Justice Is Fighting Virus-Related Crimes

Apr 22, 2020
Originally published on April 22, 2020 8:30 pm
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The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the good side of many Americans but certainly not all Americans. Scams, hoaxes and fraud related to COVID-19 are everywhere, and the Justice Department and FBI are cracking down. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas brings us this story.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: In a video message to FBI employees a month ago, director Christopher Wray said the bureau was already seeing reports of criminal activity tied to the coronavirus.

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CHRISTOPHER WRAY: The last thing the American people need in the middle of this pandemic is criminals trying to take advantage of them and profit off their concern.

LUCAS: Fast forward a month, and criminals are trying to do exactly that. The Justice Department's disaster fraud website and hotline are buzzing with tips about potential COVID-19-related crimes. Officials say they have hundreds of investigations underway into what amounts to a kaleidoscope of financial and other crimes - threats to spread the virus, hoarding and price gouging, robocall scams, even fake treatments and cures. Craig Carpenito is the U.S. attorney for New Jersey. He's also leading the Justice Department's COVID-19 task force.

CRAIG CARPENITO: It's a perfect ecosystem for somebody like a fraudster to operate in.

LUCAS: Federal investigators are seeing a lot of fraud during this public health crisis. And the reason, Carpenito says, is pretty simple.

CARPENITO: People want to believe that there's a magic pill that they can take or that if they buy it a certain kind of mask or a certain kind of protective gear, that it's going to protect them and their families. And that creates opportunities for the types of people that, you know, prey upon scared people.

LUCAS: The most prevalent kind of fraud at this point, Carpenito says, is tied to personal protective equipment like N95 masks, gloves or face shields. Prosecutors, for instance, have charged a Georgia man for allegedly trying to sell $750 million worth of masks and other protective equipment to the Department of Veterans Affairs in return for a large advance payment. The problem, prosecutors say, is the masks and other items didn't exist. Other problems, such as hoarding and price gouging, can arise even when the gear does exist, says Steven Merrill, the head of the FBI's financial crime section.

STEVEN MERRILL: We're trying to identify who is stockpiling these PPE and gouging the prices. You know, sometimes, we're seeing prices, you know, 40 to 70 times what they're valued at.

LUCAS: A few weeks ago, the FBI seized nearly 1 million N95 masks, gloves and other medical gear from a Brooklyn man who was allegedly stockpiling them and selling them to nurses and doctors at a significant markup. The man has been charged with lying to the FBI. He's also been charged with allegedly assaulting a federal officer after he coughed on agents and claimed he had COVID-19. The confiscated items, meanwhile, have been distributed to medical workers in New York. Carpenito says the department has more than 100 investigations open into price gouging. It has hundreds more, he says, into fraud, scams and other crimes tied to the pandemic, including fake cures.

The FBI's Merrill points to one notable case out of California, where a man was charged for soliciting large investments for what he claimed was a cure for COVID-19.

MERRILL: He was doing so by broadcasting this scheme via, notably, YouTube, where he got thousands of hits and views.

LUCAS: In a separate case out of Florida just last week, the Justice Department got a court order to stop a Florida church from selling on its website an industrial bleach that was being marketed as a miracle treatment for COVID-19. To be clear, medical experts say there is no cure at this point for the virus.

More than a month into this crisis, there's no sense COVID-19-related crime is going to slow down. In fact, Carpenito and Merrill both say that with the massive $2 trillion economic relief package beginning to be doled out, they expect to see even more fraud in the weeks and months ahead.

Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.