Amid the Pandemic, Beware COVID-19 Scammers

During my 28-year career as a federal prosecutor, I learned firsthand that moments of national crisis can bring out the best and the worst in Americans.

Many of our fellow citizens rise to the occasion with acts of great bravery, generosity, and thoughtfulness. Then, there are the scammers. After 9/11, after the 2008 financial crisis, after natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the flim flam men (and women) emerged with clockwork regularity, ready to steal from businesses and individuals alike.

Sadly but predictably, the COVID-19 pandemic is also bringing out the worst in some people. According to the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Better Business Bureau, and other aggregators of information about virus-related thievery, current scams that are appearing online, through robocalls, or even through in person solicitation include:

  • First and foremost, fake cures for COVID-19 or fake vaccinations.
  • Sellers fraudulently claiming to possess in-demand products such as masks, ventilators, and other health, cleaning and household supplies. You pay; they never deliver.
  • Alternately: sellers whose promised deliveries arrive but contain counterfeit products (think colored water instead of Lysol).
  • Emails that purport to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO) with links that actually are “phishing” for account numbers, social security numbers, login IDs, and passwords, or contain malware and viruses that might lock your computer until a ransom is paid. (Sloppy English and grammatical, syntax, and punctuation errors are often a clue that the email may originate from an overseas scammer rather than a genuine health organization.)
  • People in white lab coats pretending to be from the CDC, WHO, or state and local health departments, while actually looking for entry into a business or home to commit robbery.
  • Phony medical providers obtaining personal identification information, supposedly for COVID-19 testing, but actually for committing identity theft.
  • Fake charities.
  • “Pump and dump” schemes promoting microcap stocks in companies that supposedly have produced vaccines, treatments, or cures.

Law enforcement and regulatory agencies possess a variety of tools for dealing with scammers, ranging from cease-and-desist orders to civil suits resulting in court injunctions to criminal prosecutions resulting in jail time. If past experience is any guide, only the largest and most egregious cases will result in people going to jail, but federal and state prosecutors sometimes take on smaller cases for the purpose of “sending a message” to deter future scammers.

Businesses and individuals who believe they have been the victims of COVID-19 fraud can contact the National Center for Disaster Fraud at (866) 720 5721 or [email protected].

For cases involving losses of tens or thousands of dollars or more, businesses often find it beneficial to consult with counsel who have law enforcement experience and can package and summarize evidence in a manner that provides the greatest likelihood of engaging the interest of prosecutors and investigators. This can lead to securing not just punishment of the wrongdoers but forfeiture and restitution orders.

As Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (played by Michael Conrad) used to say decades ago on Hill Street Blues, “Let’s be careful out there.”

Stuart Berman served for 28 years with the Department of Justice as a line and supervisory Assistant United States Attorney and as a trial attorney with the Antitrust Division. He has assisted many of the firm’s business clients with presenting fraud cases to federal and state law enforcement authorities, leading to cases where defendants received lengthy prisons sentences and were ordered to repay victims. He can be reached at 301-657-0729 or [email protected].