Justice Department Takes First Legal Action Against Coronavirus Scam Websites
A federal judge granted a temporary restraining order to have a website selling fake vaccine kits shut down immediately.
- By Haley Samsel
- Mar 24, 2020
Less than a week after Attorney General William Barr issued an order to U.S. attorneys to focus on prosecuting scammers profiting from coronavirus panic, the Justice Department brought its first case of alleged fraud related to coronavirus to federal court on Sunday.
The enforcement action was filed in Austin, Tex. against operators of an allegedly fraudulent website, “coronavirusmedicalkit.com,” which purported to sell World Health Organization (WHO) vaccine kits in exchange for a $4.95 shipping fee, according to a Justice Department press release. Of course, no COVID-19 vaccines are publicly available right now, and the WHO is not releasing any such kits.
As a result of the legal filing, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman issued a temporary restraining order that requires the operators of the coronavirus website to block public access to the site. The federal investigation into the operators, who are accused of engaging in a wire fraud scheme, will continue after the site is shut down.
Christopher Combs, Special Agent in Charge at the FBI’s San Antonio field office, said in a statement that protecting Americans from “reprehensible fraud schemes” will be one of the FBI’s highest priorities during the coronavirus pandemic.
“At a time when we face such unprecedented challenges with the COVID-19 crisis, Americans are understandably desperate to find solutions to keep their families safe and healthy,” Combs said. “Fraudsters who seek to profit from their fear and uncertainty, by selling bogus vaccines or cures, not only steal limited resources from our communities, they pose an even greater danger by spreading misinformation and creating confusion.”
Barr’s directive to prioritize fraud schemes led the U.S. attorney’s office in the Western District of Texas to act quickly to shut down the scam, U.S. Attorney John F. Bash said.
“We hope in the future that responsible web domain registrars will quickly and effectively shut down websites designed to facilitate these scams,” Bash said. “My office will continue to be aggressive in targeting these sorts of despicable frauds for the duration of this emergency.”
The Justice Department did not name the operators of the website, filing a “John Doe” suit, and did not disclose how many people paid the $4.95 fee by submitting credit card information, The Washington Post reported. One department official told the Post that the DOJ does not know the true identity of the operator, who may have used an alias to register the domain.
“You just need to add water, and the drugs and vaccines are ready to be administered,” the site read. “There are two parts to the kit: one holds pellets containing the chemical machinery that synthesises the end product, and the other holds pellets containing instructions that tell the drug which compound to create. Mix two parts together in a chosen combination, add water, and the treatment is ready.”
Coronavirus-related fraud has grown exponentially over the past few months as hackers and scammers seek to profit from confusion and fear among the general public. Those scams include the sale of fake cures and phishing email campaigns seeking to infect computers with malware.
And while the Justice Department may act aggressively to investigate and prosecute fraud related to the pandemic, coronavirus scams will likely grow over the next few months, according to a report from Moody’s Investor Service, The Washington Post reported that the Moody analysis found that as more workers log into their employer networks from home, those networks will be more susceptible to cyber attacks and malware on their employees’ personal devices.
“There’s fraudsters all over the world that will look at this epidemic as an opportunity,” a Justice Department official told the Post.