There has been a recent surge of scams and frauds related to the new coronavirus and related topic such as vaccines and medications. The U.S. Justice Department has recently shut down websites and social media pages that pushed fake preorders for a coronavirus vaccines that is not even available at this time.
Never take medical advice on the Internet and things that are of worldwide importance like a vaccine against the new coronavirus will never be advertised on social media or random websites many, many months before a candidate vaccine has even been approved by regulators such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The U. S. Attorney Office for Western District of Kentucky has now stepped in and sued one of the people behind the scam to offer fake preorders for the new coronavirus vaccine in exchange for 100 U. S. dollars in the cryptocurrency Bitcoins. The websites and social media pages have been shut down and the perpetrator has signed an injunction to stop with his frauds.
It is good that the prosecutors and the legal system are doing something about coronavirus scams, but they need to do more to protect consumers from frauds in these perilous times.
How did the scam work?
The person named in the lawsuit, Luke John Flint, ran multiple websites with novelty domains that included “coronavaccine”, “covid19” and “coronatesting” (coronavaccine.center, coronavaccine.today, coronatesting.site, coronatesting.center, coronavaccine.shop, coronavaccine.club and covid19vaccine.center) as well as a Facebook page where he tried to make people sign up for non-existent coronavirus vaccines via preorder.
He later confessed that he was not a medical doctor and had no connections with the FDA whatsoever to take part in the distribution chain for an upcoming vaccine against the new coronavirus. The contact address for the Facebook page was also completely fake and turned out to be a parking lot.
As common among scammers, the scammer who sold fake and non-existent coronavaccine preorders took payment via Bitcoin. Bitcoin is a fake currency developed and supported by people who dislike the fact that governments have a monopoly on issuing currency. It has historically been used in organized crime, sex trafficking, drug smuggling and even assassinations.
The original dream with Bitcoin, that people could by anything while getting around the government, has quickly faded away. In fact, the production of new Bitcoins (called Bitcoin mining) requires more electricity than entire countries, making it an increasing climate threat. In essence, it is a pyramid scheme where people who got in early are making enormous amount of money compared with people who get in late into the.
Many criminals think that Bitcoin transactions are untraceable and that it allows you to send money without anyone knowing it. In reality, Bitcoin transactions are not untraceable and the entire system is built on traceability through the blockchain where all transactions are logged openly and permanently. More and more criminals are being caught even though they use Bitcoin for their transactions on the deep web.
Each fake preorder cost 100 US dollars. Even if just 100 people got scammed, it would be an income of 10000 USD, which far outweighs the cost of setting up the websites. It is not know how much money the scammer behind the fake preorders of a coronavirus vaccine made in total. On the one hand, the new coronavirus has infected millions of people and killed hundreds of thousands, so there seems to be a large market for coronavirus scams at the moment. On the other hand, shady websites and Bitcoin are not in the mainstream, and some proportion of people who are involved in these communities are likely to be anti-vaccine activists. Considering the fact that scams often operate for an extended period of time before the United States justice system get to them, there is certainly a risk that many people got scammed.
Presumably, the upcoming trial will go deeper into how much money was made and a conviction will likely involve financial penalties at least on the order of magnitude comparable to the profits that the scammer made.
What did the authorities do to shut it down?
The United States does have laws that promote consumer protection, but decades of lobbying by powerful corporations and politicians have weakened them.
The basic tactic for the prosecutors involved filing a lawsuit in a federal court, asking the judge to issue an order to ban the suspects from, for instance, using websites or social media pages that operate the scam. They also pressure the scammer to sign an injunction to refrain from certain activities. If they refuse to sign, of course, the entire weight of the United States justice system can quickly come crashing down on them. There are also other ways, including a plea bargain or other agreements made outside the court system, that the authorities can speed up the process of ending the scam.
What happened in this particular case? Attorneys working at a U.S. Attorney’s Office in Kentucky filed a lawsuit in federal court in Louisville. The federal judged ordered the scammer to stop scamming people and to stop running the websites and social media content. The main focus of the legal case appears to be directed towards wire fraud. The perpetrator also agreed to sign an injunction. This basically means that he agrees to stop scamming people. If he does not, he will feel the full force of the court breathing down his neck. He knows that the prosecutor can prove that he scammed people.
Because the consumer protection legislation is so weak, prosecutors often go for other crimes such as wire fraud or smuggling across state borders. Briefly, wire fraud involves fraud using, for instance, the Internet, phones, the radio or television. The maximum punishment for wire fraud against private citizens in the United States is 20 years and fines are very common.
The case will continue in the court system even though the perpetrator has agreed to stop. This is because he has already done crimes and they need to be handled correctly be the courts.
Have you been targeted with a coronavirus scam?
The United States Department of Justice website included a brief message to people who think they may have been subjected to a scam regarding the new coronavirus:
If you think you are a victim of a scam or attempted fraud involving COVID-19, you can report it without leaving your home by calling the Department of Justice’s National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721 or via the NCDF Web Complaint Form
This is a good approach since it allows people to make reports without leaving the home. This is important during a pandemic and especially since the situation in the United States are currently spiraling out of control.
So to anyone out there who may have become a victim of a coronavirus scam in the United States, call the National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline or fill out their online form (accessible at the bottom of the DoJ news item linked earlier in this post). Do not misuse this tool if you have not been subjected to a fraud as that makes it harder for the authorities to investigate disaster frauds like this.
Need for increased vigilance during the pandemic
Courts are quite slow so the protection afforded by them usually comes months or sometimes even years after a scam has taken place. Thus, it is important to boost preventative measures against scams among individuals and organizations.
First, if something sounds too good to be true, it is probably false. Always check with serious sources before committing to something, especially if it involves money.
Second, always stop and think if someone might be trying to manipulate your emotions. If you see something on the Internet that makes you angry, sad or fearful, chances are that the content has been written explicitly to produce those feelings among readers or viewers.
Third, always go to the source. Items of worldwide importance such as a vaccine against the pandemic coronavirus will not be advertised on random websites or Facebook pages.
Fourth and finally, be part of the solution. Spread accurate information about the world in social media posts. Educate followers, friends and family about how to spot fake news on the Internet to make them more resilient against scam attempts.