Investigators in Michigan with the Department of Homeland Security are refocusing some of their efforts on fraud tied to the coronavirus pandemic as scammers seek to take advantage of an anxious public.
Federal agencies “have multiple investigations going on” at ports of entry in Michigan of fake or shoddy personal protective equipment, said Jared Murphey, the Homeland Security Investigations assistant special agent in charge of Michigan and Ohio. HSI is part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is under the Department of Homeland Security.
They are also investigating fraudulent coronavirus test kits, counterfeit items from China and other nations, financial scams, bogus medicines and other areas.
“It’s caused a new frontier in crime … taking advantage of our fears to make a buck,” Murphey told the Free Press recently.
The investigations in metro Detroit are part of a national effort called Operation Stolen Promise.
“This unified effort brings a whole-of-government approach to monitor, investigate and arrest those responsible for endangering the public with criminal acts of fraud related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” HSI Acting Executive Associate Director Alysa Erichs said in a statement.
In Michigan, HSI is focusing on three areas:
Investigators are looking at the “large-volume sale, imports, wholesale volume of large quantities of masks being produced outside the United States not according to standards” of U.S. government agencies such as the FDA or the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Murphey said.
Many masks being imported into the U.S. don’t meet federal standards or are counterfeit, causing potential problems for first responders and health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus response.
“We’re doing everything we can to pursue criminal investigations against the organizations that are selling this stuff, the stuff that doesn’t really work,” Murphey said.
Nationally, there have been 344 coronavirus-related seizures by HSI, including of illegal test kits, prohibited drugs or chemicals, or counterfeit masks.
Fake tests and cures
The second area HSI is looking into is fake cures and test kits that aren’t authorized or legitimate. Murphey notes that currently, “there is no cure, there is no viable treatment” for the coronavirus.
HSI is concerned about “people sending out stuff that purports to be a cure for coronavirus. None of that stuff works,” he said.
Also in Michigan, “we are seeing the arrival of test kits” that don’t work properly or aren’t approved, he said.
The third area is financial fraud tied to government relief programs such as stimulus checks because of the economic downturn due to the coronavirus.
Investigators are seeing “Wild West schemes” of all sorts where scammers contact people by phone, email or text about their stimulus or unemployment benefits, tricking them into getting their personal financial information, Murphey said.
Murphey said HSI is asking people to reach out to elderly family or friends to warn them about not falling victim to such scams, which often prey upon senior citizens, especially those who live alone.
Part of global effort
HSI has started more than 200 criminal investigations into coronavirus fraud across the U.S. The agency is working with other federal agencies — including the EPA, DEA and Customs and Border Patrol — on a global trade task force to seize counterfeit items, which often come from China.
Counterfeiters from China “are very good at taking someone’s intellectual property and making it cheaper and probably less quality,” he said. “I wouldn’t say China is the only culprit, but the first among equals in the area of counterfeit.”
HSI has already shut down more than 11,000 websites related to the coronavirus by scam artists or others trying to take advantage of people. It’s looking into 13,000 other websites.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, HSI was often focused on immigration issues. In Michigan, investigators set up the fake university in Farmington Hills that led to the arrests of hundreds of students from India. They also are involved in narcotics, weapons, illegal border crossing and trafficking investigations.
“We still have a mission to do a variety of other things,” Murphey said. “All these things are still going on, but we’ve added to our mission coronavirus fraud.”
For more info
For more information on coronavirus fraud and tips to avoid scams, check ice.gov’s coronavirus program online.
To report suspected illicit criminal activity or fraudulent schemes related to the COVID-19 pandemic, email [email protected]
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