BURLINGTON -- U.S. Attorney Christina E. Nolan has announced that her office will prioritize the investigation and prosecution of fraud schemes, and other crime related to COVID-19, that seek to exploit the public or harm the vulnerable during this national health emergency. U.S. Attorney Nolan urged the public to report suspected fraud schemes related to COVID-19 (the coronavirus) by calling the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) hotline (1-866-720-5721) or emailing the NCDF at email@example.com.
U.S. Attorney Nolan stated, “While Vermont unites to respond to the spread of COVID-19, we are aware that some may try to profit by capitalizing on perceived vulnerabilities. The community should know that my office is committed to holding anyone who commits crimes related to COVID-19 accountable for their conduct. We will respond with criminal accountability to those who would sell fake cures online, send phishing emails from entities posing as the World Health Organization or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or engage in other types of criminal conduct related to COVID-19. Moreover, as to property crimes, there are a number of federal laws that may be brought to bear to address that form of exploitation. We are committed to enforcing the law and protecting Vermonters and will be creative and aggressive in so doing.”
Scammers have already devised numerous methods for defrauding people in connection with COVID-19. They are setting up websites, contacting people by phone and email, and posting disinformation on social media platforms. Some examples of scams linked to COVID-19 include:
• Testing scams: Scammers are selling fake at-home test kits or going door-to-door performing fake tests for money.
• Treatment scams: Scammers are offering to sell fake cures, vaccines, pills, and advice on unproven treatments for COVID-19.
• Supply scams: Scammers are creating fake shops, websites, social media accounts, and email addresses claiming to sell medical supplies currently in high demand, such as surgical masks. When consumers attempt to purchase supplies through these channels, fraudsters pocket the money and never provide the promised supplies.
• Provider scams: Scammers are contacting people by phone and email, pretending to be doctors and hospitals that have treated a friend or relative for COVID-19, and demanding payment for that treatment. Medical providers are also obtaining patient information for COVID-19 testing and then using that information to fraudulently bill for other tests and procedures.
• Charity scams: Scammers are soliciting donations for individuals, groups, and areas affected by COVID-19.
• Phishing scams: Scammers posing as national and global health authorities, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are sending phishing emails designed to trick recipients into downloading malware or providing personal identifying and financial information.
• App scams: Scammers are creating and manipulating mobile apps designed to track the spread of COVID-19 to insert malware that will compromise users’ devices and personal information.
• Investment scams: Scammers are offering online promotions on various platforms, including social media, claiming that the products or services of publicly-traded companies can prevent, detect, or cure COVID-19, and that the stock of these companies will dramatically increase in value as a result. These promotions are often styled as “research reports,” make predictions of a specific “target price,” and relate to microcap stocks, or low-priced stocks, issued by the smallest of companies with limited publicly available information.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office urges Vermonters to take the following precautionary measures to protect themselves from known and emerging scams:
• 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 for a COVID-19 vaccine, cure, or treatment. Should there be a medical breakthrough, you will not hear about it for the first time through an email, online ad, or an 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 the websites of charities soliciting donations in connection with COVID-19 before giving. 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 (www.ftc.gov.).
• 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 (www.sec.gov).
• For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.CDC.gov ) and World Health Organization (www.WHO.int) websites.
U.S. Attorney Nolan has appointed Eugenia Cowles, Assistant U.S. Attorney and Criminal Division Chief, as the office’s COVID-19 fraud coordinator. She will serve as legal counsel for the federal judicial district of Vermont on matters relating to the coronavirus. AUSA Cowles will coordinate investigations and direct the prosecution of coronavirus-related crimes.
If you or someone you know believe you’ve been the target or victim of an outbreak-related fraud scheme, please contact the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) by visiting www.IC3.gov. If you or someone you know are in immediate danger, please call 911.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office COVID-19 fraud coordinator will be notified of tips submitted via the above reporting method.
To find more about Department of Justice resources and information, please visit www.justice.gov/coronavirus.