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As Fraudsters Exploit Pandemic Fears, Justice Department Looks To Crack Down

A month ago, Attorney General William Barr created a price gouging and hoarding task force.
A month ago, Attorney General William Barr created a price gouging and hoarding task force.

Updated at 3:02 p.m. ET

The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the good side of many Americans but certainly not all Americans. Officials say that fraud related to COVID-19 — such as hoarding equipment, price gouging and hawking fake treatments — are spreading as the country wrestles with the outbreak.

"It's a perfect ecosystem for somebody like a fraudster to operate in," said Craig Carpenito, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey and the head of the Justice Department's COVID-19 price gouging and hoarding task force.

"People want to believe that there's a magic pill that they can take or that if they buy a certain kind of mask or a certain kind of protective gear that it's going to protect them and their families," he said. "That creates opportunities for the types of people that prey upon scared people. They prey upon their fear."

A month ago, Attorney General William Barr instructed federal prosecutors across the country to aggressively investigate and prosecute scams and other crimes related to the COVID-19 pandemic. He also created the price gouging and hoarding task force and put Carpenito in charge of it.

From that perch, Carpenito has one of the best views of virus-related crime nationwide.

"Instead of seeing that tremendous support from all aspects of society, we're still seeing that sliver, that that dark underbelly, that small percentage of folks who instead of putting the interests of the country and support for those medical professionals that are putting themselves at risk in the forefront, they're finding ways to try and take advantage of this situation and illegally profiteer from it," he said. "And it's despicable."

The most prevalent kind of fraud that federal authorities are seeing at this point, he and others say, is tied to personal protective equipment like N95 masks, gloves or face shields.

In one notable case, prosecutors brought charges against a Georgia man, Christopher Parris, saying he sold $750 million worth of masks and other protective equipment to the Department of Veterans Affairs but with a sizable advance payment.

The problem, prosecutors say, is the masks and other items didn't exist, at least not in the quantities Parris was offering.

Steven Merrill, the head of the FBI's financial crimes section, says the bureau refers to these sorts of operations as advance-fee schemes.

"We're getting many complaints that different entities are entering into these agreements, paying money upfront, sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars, and may or may not get any masks or other PPE ordered at all," Merrill said. "So our guidance to the public is to please be wary of these frauds and solicitations."

Other problems, such as hoarding and price gouging, can arise even when the medical gear does exist.

The FBI is trying to identify individuals who are stockpiling protective equipment and trying to sell it at exorbitant markups, sometimes 40 to 70 times the value, Merrill said.

A few weeks ago, the FBI seized nearly 1 million respirator masks, gloves and other medical gear from a Brooklyn man who was allegedly stockpiling them and selling them to nurses and doctors at what officials say was around a 700% markup.

Baruch Feldheim has been charged with lying to the FBI about price gouging. He has also been charged with allegedly assaulting a federal officer after he coughed on agents and claimed he had COVID-19.

The confiscated items, meanwhile, have been distributed to medical workers in the New York area.

On Friday, federal prosecutors in New York brought the first criminal case for alleged price gouging and hoarding under the Defense Production Act, which was invoked by President Trump early this month in response to the pandemic.

The defendant, Amardeep Singh, allegedly had stockpiled more than 5 tons of medical equipment, including masks and gloves, at his retail store and warehouse on Long Island.

The government says Singh was selling some of the gear in a "COVID-19 Essentials" section in his shop at significantly inflated prices. Disposable face masks, for instance, were allegedly selling at a more than 1,000% markup.

Carpenito said the Justice Department has more than 100 open investigations into price gouging. It has hundreds more, he said, into other crimes tied to the pandemic, including fake treatments and cures.

In one case out of California, prosecutors charged a man who was allegedly soliciting large investments for what he claimed was a cure for COVID-19.

"He was doing so by broadcasting this scheme via, notably, YouTube, where had thousands of hits and views," Merrill said.

In a separate case out of Florida last week, the Justice Department got a court order to stop a Florida church from selling on its website an industrial bleach that was being marketed as a miracle treatment for the virus.

To be clear, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no cure at this point for the virus.

More than a month into this crisis, there's no sense COVID-related crime is going to slow down.

In fact, Carpenito and Merrill say that with the massive $2 trillion economic relief package beginning to be doled out, they expect to see even more fraud in the weeks and months ahead.

"What we're worried about is that not only do we have these existing conditions, but we are awaiting — like everybody in the country — the arrival of $2 trillion to hit the streets," Merrill said. "And anytime there's that much money out there, you can just multiply the amount of frauds that are going to take place. So we're preparing for many more complaints to come in and new schemes to arrive on a daily basis."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.