WASHINGTON, D.C. – The United States Department of Justice has received an enforcement action in federal court that will help combat fraud linked to the coronavirus pandemic.
A temporary restraining order that was filed in Tampa is the latest effort from the Justice Department in their goal of prosecuting people who are taking advantage of the pandemic to create fraud schemes.
“The Department of Justice is committed to preventing fraudsters from exploiting this pandemic for personal gain,” Assistant Attorney General Ethan P. Davis of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division said. “We will use every resource at the government’s disposal to pursue scammers who are stealing money from citizens amidst the ongoing public health crisis.”
The pandemic has given criminals a unique opportunity to take advantage of communities by targeting vulnerable populations through financial, pharmaceutical, and medical supply fraud schemes, according to Special Agent in Charge Kevin Sibley.
In the courtroom
According to court documents, Defendants Thu Phan Dinh, Tran Khanh, and Nguyen Duy Toan, all residents of Vietnam, are accused of setting up a wire fraud scheme in hopes of profiting off the COVID-19 pandemic. The defendants ran over 300 websites that seemed to sell products that became scarce during the pandemic, including hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, according to the complaint.
Victims paid for items supposedly sold through the websites, but never received the purchased products.
The defendants are also accused of listing incorrect contact addresses and phone numbers on the fraudulent websites, causing people and businesses unaware of the crimes to receive numerous complaint calls from people who fell victim to the scheme.
The United States obtained the restraining order to shut down the Defendants’ websites immediately while an investigation continues. Vietnamese authorities have also conducted their own investigation and arrested the Defendants.
The government is allowing federal courts to issue injunctions that prevent scammers from harming potential victims of fraud.
How to steer clear of fraud schemes
The Department of Justice recommends that Americans do all they can to protect themselves from scams related to the pandemic:
- Independently verify the identity of any company, charity, or individual that contacts 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 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 from suspicious sources 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.
- Research any charities or crowdfunding sites soliciting donations in connection with COVID-19 before giving any 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.
- Be wary of any business, charity, or individual requesting payments or donations in cash, by wire transfer, gift card, or 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.
Report suspected fraud schemes related to COVID-19 to the National Center for Disaster Fraud hotline by phone at (1-866-720-5721) or via an online at www.justice.gov/disaster-fraud/webform/ncdf-disaster-complaint-form.
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