TAMPA, Fla. – A federal court in Florida permanently enjoined on Friday three residents of Vietnam from operating a pandemic-related scam that targeted American consumers, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced.
The case was investigated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), in coordination with the Vietnam Ministry of Public Security, Department of Foreign Relations and Hanoi Police. After receiving information from American law enforcement, Vietnamese authorities investigated and arrested the defendants on local charges.
In a complaint filed in August 2020 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, the government alleged that Thu Phan Dinh, Tran Khanh and Nguyen Duy Toan engaged in a wire fraud scheme designed to profit from the COVID-19 pandemic. The defendants operated more than 300 websites that fraudulently purported to sell products in the United States that became scarce during the pandemic, including hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Thousands of victims in all 50 states paid for items marketed through the websites but received nothing.
Additionally, the defendants set up hundreds of email accounts and accounts with a U.S.-based payment processor to carry out the scheme and keep it hidden from law enforcement. The defendants also allegedly listed fraudulent contact addresses and phone numbers on the websites, which caused unaffiliated individuals and businesses in the United States to receive numerous complaint calls from victims who had been defrauded by the scheme.
“HSI works tirelessly to disrupt and dismantle criminal networks around the world who are exploiting the global pandemic for their own personal financial gain,” said Special Agent in Charge John A. Condon of HSI Tampa. “This permanent injunction is the final step in ensuring these defendants can no longer take advantage of people.”
“Scams that take advantage of the global pandemic to prey on American consumers are particularly egregious,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton of the DOJ’s Civil Division.
“The Department of Justice is committed to working with law enforcement partners in the United States and around the globe to stop anyone who would try to profit through this kind of conduct.”
“The final injunction entered in this civil case sends a strong message of our district’s commitment to ensuring that fraudulent, predatory practices will be confronted in this critically important area,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Karin Hoppmann of the Middle District of Florida. “We thank our partners at the DOJ’s Consumer Protection Branch, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Vietnamese law enforcement who assisted us throughout this effort.”
The civil enforcement action, filed in U.S. District Court in Tampa, Florida, is part of the DOJ’s ongoing efforts to detect, investigate, and prosecute illegal conduct related to the pandemic. U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle granted the government’s motion for a default judgment and issued the permanent injunction, which extends a preliminary injunction that halted defendants’ scam and shut down the fraudulent websites.
The government was represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Carolyn B. Tapie for the Middle District of Florida and Trial Attorney Kathryn A. Schmidt of the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch.
On May 17, 2021, the Attorney General established the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force to marshal the resources of the DOJ in partnership with agencies across government to enhance efforts to combat and prevent pandemic-related fraud. The Task Force bolsters efforts to investigate and prosecute the most culpable domestic and international criminal actors and assists agencies tasked with administering relief programs to prevent fraud by, among other methods, augmenting and incorporating existing coordination mechanisms, identifying resources and techniques to uncover fraudulent actors and their schemes and sharing and harnessing information and insights gained from prior enforcement efforts.
HSI is a directorate of ICE and the principal investigative arm of DHS, responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of over 10,400 employees consists of more than 7,100 special agents assigned to 220 cities throughout the United States, and 80 overseas locations in 53 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.