Coronavirus criminals: Authorities wage war against virus scammers, thieves, impostors and idiots

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From price-gouging, mask stealing and pharma-fraud to charity scams, app extortion, cyber-hacking and even "coughing" on people and produce for Instagram followers or as an act of hate, the new coronavirus-centered crime wave – like the spread of the novel virus – is gaining momentum by the minute.

"People have been so focused on the coronavirus itself, its spread and the danger, less attention has been paid to how fraudsters are committing crimes to steal money and to obtain personal information in order to steal money," David Katz, former Assistant U.S. Attorney for Los Angeles, told Fox News. "Working people are often hurt the most by fraud. Beyond scams, there has been stealing, diverting and hoarding of surgical masks and other medical supplies, pharmaceuticals, and cargos of groceries, plus hate crimes."

While traditional criminal activity across much of the country is reported to have dropped in recent weeks as governments have urged – and enforced – residents to shelter in place in a bid to combat the contagion spread, authorities are not battling a crime wave of a different kind: those exploiting the unique pandemic. And the types of illicit actions pertaining to the coronavirus, officially termed COVID-19, are vast and varying.

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In Missouri, a coughing man allegedly threatened to give store clerks the virus, and in Maryland, a man donning an orange vest entered a home – posing as a health official inspecting for the disease. And in Pennsylvania this week, a family-run supermarket was forced to throw out more than $35,000 worth of produce and food because a woman is said to have coughed all of it as part of a "twisted prank," and the police are now involved.

In New Jersey, a man was charged on Wednesday with making "terroristic threats" after allegedly coughing at a food market employee and claiming that he had coronavirus. The Justice Department has cautioned that similar felonies are happening elsewhere, with individuals on self-ignited rampages to "spread the virus."

Residents wearing masks wait at a traffic light in Beijing earlier this month. Los Angeles area leaders relayed fears of coronavirus-related hate crimes this week. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Residents wearing masks wait at a traffic light in Beijing earlier this month. Los Angeles area leaders relayed fears of coronavirus-related hate crimes this week. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

And on Wednesday, the FBI in Southern California arrested a man on a federal fraud charge for allegedly hawking a "patent-pending cure" for the coronavirus and soliciting funds "with promises of massive profits," claiming basketball legend Magic Johnson was on the board of directors.

But that's only the tip of the iceberg.

Officials nationwide are sounding the alarm on testing scams, including scammers selling fake at-home test kits or going door-to-door performing artificial tests for money, as well as counterfeit treatment shakedowns and supply shams such as creating phony shops, websites, social media accounts, and email addresses claiming to sell medical supplies currently in high demand, such as surgical masks – although the products never arrive. Then there are "provider" deceptions whereby imposters contact 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.

Over the past few weeks, there has also been a swell of charity hoaxes –  charlatans soliciting donations for individuals, groups and areas affected by the virus, and phishing scams which feature con-artists posing as national and global health authorities, and then sending phishing emails designed to trick recipients into downloading malware or providing personal identifying and financial information.

"We are seeing an increase in themed phishing attacks with different goals depending on who they are and what they are after. Hackers are pushing out COVID-19 information – quite often false, but not always – and leveraging the current panic and need to be well informed to get people to quickly click on links without fully thinking through if it is coming from a legitimate source," explained Nico Fischbach, chief technology officer of analytics and cybersecurity firm Forcepoint. "The goal of these phishing attacks is to give hackers access to your personal information, which can then be exploited for credit card purchases, identity and IT credential theft, and more."

He also pointed out that they are witnessing a spike in "deep fakes," both video and audio, in which hackers create a sense of urgency with altered visuals to get people to complete certain tasks.

In addition, criminals are creating and manipulating mobile apps designed to track the spread of coronavirus to insert malware that will compromise users' devices and personal information, and other grifters are peddling online promotions on various platforms, including social media, claiming that the products or services of publicly traded companies can prevent, detect, or cure – disguised as "investment research reports."

"We've also seen the start of coronavirus extortion emails. This is a more troubling development. These are emails which are very similar to what we've seen in sextortion, where a hacker gets your password from a data dump and then claims to have access to your computer or webcam," warned Karim Hijazi, CEO of the cyber-defense firm Prevailion. "This time, however, the hacker uses the password ruse to claim he knows everything about you and your family, your daily routine, what you eat, where you go, who you meet, and if you don't pay him, he will infect you and your family with coronavirus."

And scores of online sellers are also reported to be selling fake clearance certificates for international travel, meaning that a person with such paperwork can travel to and from countries such as China, presenting a further risk for spreading the pathogen. Individuals have also been busted brazenly stealing medical supplies, equipment, and test kits in the quest to sell them online for a profit.

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In such times of crisis, panic and fear provide fertile ground for swindlers of all stripes to let loose.

According to Ken Mahoney, CEO of New York-based firm Mahoney Asset Management, we need to be mindful of crimes targeting the elderly community and people with underlying health issues, as they are high-risk categories for coronavirus.

"These individuals are more prone to act out of character, and as crimes move away from physical acts, it is the unknown cybercrime we should be watching out for," he said. "Criminals are always looking for ways to exploit individuals and businesses, so it is expected to see new scamming initiatives or price-fixing on new products. This isn't the first major pandemic we have lived through, but the effect and scope of the spread are unprecedented."

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Nonetheless, authorities on federal, state and local levels have vowed to take targeted action.

The Justice Department this week set up a central fraud hotline, specifically for people to report suspicious activity related to the coronavirus. States such as Kentucky, New York, Vermont, and Boston this week have also formed their own task forces aimed at clamping down on virus exploiters.

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The DOJ has furthermore warned that anyone who seeks to "intentionally spread coronavirus" could be charged with terrorism. In a memo to senior Justice Department leaders and law enforcement leaders on Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen stated that "because coronavirus appears to meet the statutory definition of a 'biological agent' such acts potentially could implicate the nation's terrorism-related statues."

"Threats or attempts to use COVID-19 as a weapon against Americans will not be tolerated," Rosen affirmed.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations have also set up teams to push back against fraud and erroneous information percolating – and being sold – that coronavirus cures and preventions can be found through ingesting such things as bleach, bananas, colloidal silver, and garlic.

Moreover, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued consumer warnings to be mindful of an array of "fraudulent products that claim to cure, treat, or even prevent COVID-19."

"The FDA is particularly concerned that these deceptive and misleading products might cause Americans to delay or stop appropriate medical treatment, leading to serious and life-threatening harm," the administration stated.

The headquarters for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. Authorities in New Jersey warned of scammers approaching residences pretending to be CDC employees. (AP Photo/ Ron Harris)

The headquarters for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. Authorities in New Jersey warned of scammers approaching residences pretending to be CDC employees. (AP Photo/ Ron Harris)

An international group of almost 400 volunteers from 40 countries – including the top brass at major companies such as Amazon and Microsoft – all highly skilled in cybersecurity came together on Wednesday to establish the COVID-19 CTI League, aimed at fighting cyber threats and hacking.

As of Thursday, more than 75,000 people across the United States have been infected. It has claimed the lives of at least 1,100 people domestically and over 23,000 have died globally.

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And then there are the even more silent crimes that stem from living in isolation, coupled with an uptick in panic that stems not only from the virus itself but the employment and economic fallout.

"Increased stress can also lead to an increase in violent crime in the home. For example, Cook Children's hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, has reported a dramatic increase in serious physical child abuse cases in just one week," added Francey Hakes, a former Department of Justice prosecutor and specialist in crimes against children. "Where they normally suspect a half dozen such cases in any given month, they have had that number of suspected cases in a single week. Tragically, two of the children, both preschool-aged, died of traumatic injuries. We must be aware of this and take steps to combat it."