Justice Department Acts To Shut Down Fraudulent Websites Exploiting The COVID-19 Pandemic

(STL.News) – The United States Department of Justice announced today that it has obtained a Temporary Restraining Order in federal court to combat fraud related to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.  The enforcement action, filed in Tampa, Florida, is part of the Justice Department’s ongoing efforts prioritizing the detection, investigation, and prosecution of illegal conduct related to the pandemic.  The action was brought based on an investigation conducted by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), in coordination with the Vietnam Ministry of Public Security.

“The Department of Justice is committed to preventing fraudsters from exploiting this pandemic for personal gain,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Ethan P. Davis of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division.  “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.”

“This action affirms our commitment to Attorney General Barr’s directive to prioritize fraud schemes arising out of the coronavirus pandemic,” said U.S. Attorney Maria Chapa Lopez of the Middle District of Florida.  “We will continue to aggressively investigate and shut down these scams that attempt to take advantage of our fellow American citizens, who are trying to keep their families safe and healthy during these very trying times.”

“Unfortunately the Global Pandemic has given criminals and criminal organizations a new opportunity to take advantage of our communities by targeting vulnerable populations through financial fraud schemes, the importation of counterfeit pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, and illicit websites defrauding consumers which continue to compromise legitimate trade and financial systems,” said HSI Tampa acting Special Agent in Charge Kevin Sibley.  “Through our investigations under Operation Stolen Promise, HSI will continue to disrupt and dismantle these criminal networks as well as those who are exploiting the pandemic for their own financial gain.”

As detailed in the civil complaint and accompanying court papers filed on Monday, August 3, 2020, defendants Thu Phan Dinh, Tran Khanh, and Nguyen Duy Toan, all residents of Vietnam, are alleged to have engaged in a wire fraud scheme seeking to profit from the COVID-19 pandemic.  According to the complaint, defendants operated more than 300 websites that fraudulently purported to sell products that became scarce during the pandemic, including hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.  Thousands of victims in all 50 states attempted to purchase these items from defendants’ websites.  Victims paid for items supposedly sold through the websites but never received the purchased products.  The complaint alleges that defendants set up hundreds of email accounts and accounts with a U.S.-based payment processor to effectuate the scheme and keep it hidden from law enforcement.  Defendants are also alleged to have listed fraudulent contact addresses and phone numbers on the websites, causing unaffiliated individuals and businesses in the United States to receive numerous complaint calls from victims who had been defrauded by the scheme.  In response to the Department’s request for injunctive relief, U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell issued an emergency ex parte temporary restraining order requiring that the registrar and registries of defendants’ fraudulent websites take immediate action to disable them.

The United States obtained the restraining order to shutter defendants’ websites immediately while an investigation of defendants’ scheme continues.  In so doing, the government is employing a federal statute that permits federal courts to issue injunctions to prevent harm to potential victims of fraudulent schemes.  In response to information provided by HSI, Vietnamese authorities have also conducted their own investigation and arrested the Defendants.

The Department of Justice recommends that Americans take the following precautionary measures to protect themselves from known and emerging scams related to COVID-19:

  • 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.

For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, consumers may visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) websites.  The public is urged to report suspected fraud schemes related to COVID-19 (the Coronavirus) to the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) hotline by phone at (1-866-720-5721) or via an online reporting form available at www.justice.gov/disaster-fraud/webform/ncdf-disaster-complaint-form.

The enforcement action taken today is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Carolyn B. Tapie of the Middle District of Florida and Trial Attorney Kathryn A. Schmidt of the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch. HSI’s Tampa office is conducting the investigation.

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