The Justice Department has shut down over 300 scam websites for exploiting the pandemic by pretending to sell hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.
The websites, which included zerostore.site and babiestore.site, duped tens of thousands of victims across the US into making purchases, but no orders were actually received, according to federal officials.
In response, the Justice Department filed a restraining order in a Florida court earlier this month to take the sites down. Federal investigators also traced the sites back to three residents in Vietnam who allegedly ran the scam: Thu Phan Dinh, Tran Khanh, and Nguyen Duy Toan.
To pull off the scheme, the suspects registered hundreds of website addresses using the hosting provider GoDaddy. Each web address could then be used to set up an online store to sell goods, including cleaning products originally scarce during the pandemic.
To receive the payments from consumers, the suspects relied on PayPal, and created hundreds of accounts using various email addresses. When consumers complained to PayPal about never receiving their orders, the suspects responded by supplying fake UPS tracking numbers to the company.
If the scam website received too many consumer complaints, the suspects would simply shut the store down and start the scheme all over again. The court complaint notes the suspects in some cases used fake names to create their PayPal accounts and online stores. But in other cases, the physical addresses and phone numbers belonging to real people and businesses in the US were used.
As a result, the scam websites also ensnared innocent bystanders, who had to field angry complaints from consumers duped in the scam.
According to the Justice Department, authorities in Vietnam have arrested the three suspects. However, federal officials are warning the public to stay on guard against online scammers trying to exploit the pandemic.
“Check online reviews of any company offering COVID-19 products or supplies. Avoid companies whose customers have complained about not receiving items,” the Justice Department said in a today’s announcement, which also contains more tips on how to stay safe.
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