DOJ Takes First Action against COVID-19 Fraud

March 24, 2020 | Marc S. Ullman | Privacy, Data & Cyber Law

On March 22, 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a press release announcing its first action against COVID-19 fraudsters: a civil complaint seeking an injunction ordering the website coronavirusmedicalkit.com to shut down while an investigation into the site’s operators continues.

According to the complaint, filed in the Western District of Texas, “Information published on the website claimed to offer consumers access to World Health Organization (WHO) vaccine kits in exchange for a shipping charge of $4.95, which consumers would pay by entering their credit card information on the website. In fact, there are currently no legitimate COVID-19 vaccines and the WHO is not distributing any such vaccine.” Judge Robert Pitman has already entered a Temporary Restraining Order directing the domain registrar to immediately take down the site.

Information provided in the DOJ announcement reminds the public that it must be vigilant against potential fraudsters seeking to take advantage of the current crisis. It urges everyone to take the following steps:

  • Independently verify the identity of any company, charity or individual contacting 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 email and web 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 a vaccine becomes available, 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 they ordered.
  • Research any charities or crowdfunding sites soliciting donations in connection with COVID-19 before giving a donation. 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 or charitynavigator.org/.
  • Be wary of any business, charity or individual requesting payments or donations in cash, by wire transfer, gift card 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.

Anyone suspecting that they are the victim of COVID-19 fraud or an attempted fraud should report the incident in accordance with the instructions provided by the DOJ at justice.gov/coronavirus

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