COVID-19 scam seizures top 840, says ICE

US law enforcement has seized more than 840 shipments of fraudulent COVID-19 goods since the start of the crisis, making 46 arrests, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The seizures – which include prohibited coronavirus testing kits, illegal pharmaceuticals, counterfeit masks and other illicit items – have also been accompanied by the confiscation of more than $6m in illicit proceeds, says the agency.

Its latest update also reveals that more than 47,000 domain names have been analysed as part of a clampdown on COVID-19-related fraud online, and 1,143 investigative leads have been forwarded to US and international enforcement agencies for follow-up.

Meanwhile, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) says it has been working with law enforcement and private sector partners to identify and investigate financial fraud schemes, including fraudulent fundraising for fake charities, various medical scams and online sales of fake medical supplies.

There have been $1.3m-worth of seizures in connection with suspected fraud under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and $17.9m in disrupted transactions and recovered funds.

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In one case in Los Angeles, a UK man was named in a federal criminal complaint April 1 charging him with smuggling into the US mislabelled drugs purported to be a treatment for those suffering from COVID-19.

Another investigation resulted in the arrest of a Georgia man in mid-April for illegally importing and selling an unregistered pesticide, as part of an online scheme offering the product for sale and claiming the pesticide would protect persons from COVID-19.

Stiffer penalties needed

The scale of the fraud being carried out amid the crisis has led to calls for tougher penalties to discourage the perpetrators.

In May, lawmakers in the US tabled a bipartisan bill that will increase jail terms by at between 15 and 35 years for people convicted of frauds related to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Coronavirus Swindlers, Crooks, and Manipulators (SCAM) Act would cover a broad range of fraudulent activity involving “phishing emails targeted at seniors and their recovery checks, websites selling fake masks, and deliberate misinformation regarding CDC guidance,” according to Dan Meuser, a Pennsylvania Republican, and Long Island Democrat Tom Suozzi, who are sponsoring the bill.

If the bill is adopted into law as it stands, the new maximum penalties for fraud statutes would be 45 years in prison and a $1.5m fine, while counterfeiting penalties would temporarily increase to 45 years – up from 10 years for a first offense – along with a $2.5m fine.

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