ICE HSI Tampa investigation shuts down fraudulent COVID-19 websites
WASHINGTON – As a result of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigation (HSI) under Operation Stolen Promise, the U.S. Department of Justice obtained a temporary restraining order in federal court to combat fraud related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The enforcement action, filed in Tampa, Florida, is part of the Justice Department’s ongoing efforts prioritizing the detection, investigation and prosecution of illegal conduct related to the pandemic. The action was brought based on an investigation conducted by HSI in Tampa, in coordination with HSI Attaché Ho Chi Minh City, the Cyber Crimes Center, and the Vietnam Ministry of Public Security.
“The Department of Justice is committed to preventing fraudsters from exploiting this pandemic for personal gain,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Ethan P. Davis of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division. “We will use every resource at the government’s disposal to pursue scammers who are stealing money from citizens amidst the ongoing public health crisis.”
“This action affirms our commitment to Attorney General Barr’s directive to prioritize fraud schemes arising out of the coronavirus pandemic,” said U.S. Attorney Maria Chapa Lopez of the Middle District of Florida. “We will continue to aggressively investigate and shut down these scams that attempt to take advantage of our fellow American citizens, who are trying to keep their families safe and healthy during these very trying times.”
As detailed in the civil complaint and accompanying court papers filed Aug.3, 2020, defendants Thu Phan Dinh, Tran Khanh, and Nguyen Duy Toan, all residents of Vietnam, are alleged to have engaged in a wire fraud scheme seeking to profit from the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the complaint, defendants operated more than 300 websites that fraudulently purported to sell products that became scarce during the pandemic, including hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Thousands of victims in all 50 states attempted to purchase these items from defendants’ websites. Victims paid for items supposedly sold through the websites but never received the purchased products. The complaint alleges that defendants set up hundreds of email accounts and accounts with a U.S.- based payment processor to effectuate the scheme and keep it hidden from law enforcement. Defendants are also alleged to have listed fraudulent contact addresses and phone numbers on the websites, causing unaffiliated individuals and businesses in the United States to receive numerous complaint calls from victims who had been defrauded by the scheme. In response to the department’s request for injunctive relief, U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell issued an emergency ex parte temporary restraining order requiring that the registrar and registries of defendants’ fraudulent websites take immediate action to disable them.
The United States obtained the restraining order to shutter defendants’ websites immediately while an investigation of defendants’ scheme continues. In so doing, the government is employing a federal statute that permits federal courts to issue injunctions to prevent harm to potential victims of fraudulent schemes. In response to information provided by HSI, Vietnamese authorities have also conducted their own investigation and arrested the defendants.
HSI launched Operation Stolen Promise in April 2020 to protect the homeland from the increasing and evolving threat posed by COVID-19-related fraud and criminal activity. The initiative combines HSI’s expertise in global trade, financial fraud, international operations, cyber-crime, and criminal analysis to investigate financial fraud schemes, the importation of prohibited pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, websites defrauding consumers, and any other illicit criminal activities associated with the virus that compromises legitimate trade or financial systems or endangers the public.
Information on how to recognize potential COVID-related fraud can be found on HSI’s Operation Stolen Promise webpage, and how to report suspect fraud to the authorities.
The Department of Justice recommends that Americans take the following precautionary measures to protect themselves from known and emerging scams related to COVID-19:
- Independently verify the identity of any company, charity, or individual that contacts you regarding COVID-19.
- Check the websites and email addresses offering information, products or services related to COVID-19. Be aware that scammers often employ addresses that differ only slightly from those belonging to the entities they are impersonating. For example, they might use “cdc.com” or “cdc.org” instead of “cdc.gov.”
- Be wary of unsolicited emails offering information, supplies or treatment for COVID-19 or requesting your personal information for medical purposes. Legitimate health authorities will not contact the general public this way.
- Do not click on links or open email attachments from unknown or unverified sources. Doing so could download a virus onto your computer or device.
- Make sure the anti-malware and anti-virus software on your computer is operating and up to date.
- Ignore offers from suspicious sources for a COVID-19 vaccine, cure or treatment. Remember, if a vaccine becomes available, you won’t hear about it for the first time through an email, online ad or unsolicited sales pitch.
- Check online reviews of any company offering COVID-19 products or supplies. Avoid companies whose customers have complained about not receiving items.
- Research any charities or crowdfunding sites soliciting donations in connection with COVID-19 before giving any donation. Remember, an organization may not be legitimate even if it uses words like “CDC” or “government” in its name or has reputable looking seals or logos on its materials. For online resources on donating wisely, visit the Federal Trade Commission website.
- Be wary of any business, charity or individual requesting payments or donations in cash, by wire transfer, gift card or through the mail. Don’t send money through any of these channels.
- Be cautious of “investment opportunities” tied to COVID-19, especially those based on claims that a small company’s products or services can help stop the virus. If you decide to invest, carefully research the investment beforehand. For information on how to avoid investment fraud, visit the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission website.
For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, consumers may visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization websites. The public is urged to report suspected fraud schemes related to COVID-19 to the National Center for Disaster Fraud hotline by phone at (1-866-720-5721) or via an online reporting form available at www.justice.gov/disaster-fraud/webform/ncdf-disaster-complaint-form.
The enforcement action taken today is being prosecuted by the office of United States Attorney Maria Chapa Lopez, Middle District Florida, Assistant United States Attorney Carolyn B. Tapie and Trial Attorney Kathryn A. Schmidt of the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch.
The claims made in the complaint are allegations that, if the case were to proceed to trial, the government must prove to receive a permanent injunction against the defendants.
Additional information about the Consumer Protection Branch and its enforcement efforts may be found at www.justice.gov/civil/consumer-protection-branch. For more information about the United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida, visit its website at www.justice.gov/usao-mdfl. For information about the Department of Justice’s efforts to stop COVID-19 fraud, visit www.justice.gov/coronavirus.