US charges close to 500 individuals for COVID-19 fraud, criminal activity

Everything from PPE fraud, disaster loan schemes, and unemployment scams are on the books.

The US Department of Justice (DoJ) has charged 474 individuals for participating in COVID-19 scams and fraudulent activity. 

To some cybercriminals, the coronavirus pandemic is nothing more than an opportunity for profit. We've seen everything from fake COVID 'treatments' and protective equipment suppliers touting their goods online to phishing email and text vaccine appointment campaigns, and now, dubious vendors are going so far as to try and sell counterfeit vaccines and proof documents in the underground. 

Law enforcement worldwide has tried to clamp down on such activities and organizations including the World Health Organization (WHO) are constantly releasing advice on the latest scams.

In an update published last week, the DoJ said that 474 defendants to date have been publicly charged "with criminal offenses based on fraud schemes connected to the COVID-19 pandemic."

The US agency says that these alleged criminals are responsible for trying to fraudulently obtain at least $569 million from consumers and the US government itself across 56 federal districts. 

Investigations conducted by law enforcement have revealed a variety of scams including operations targeting the US Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program, and Unemployment Insurance (UI) scheme, all designed to assist businesses and citizens during the pandemic. 

In total, 120 individuals have been charged with PPE fraud, including:

  • Business owners inflating payroll expenses to secure large loans
  • Shell company creators with no actual payroll applying for financial help
  • Organized criminal gangs submitting carbon-copy applications for loans under the names of different companies

One of the department's latest COVID-19-related convictions centered around Dinesh Sah, a resident of Coppell, Texas. The 55-year-old pleaded guilty last week for conducting fraud to obtain $24.8 million in PPP loans and laundering the payments. 

When it comes to EIDL, designed to provide SMB loans, criminals have also applied for assistance on behalf of non-existent, new, and shell companies. 

UI fraud is rife, too, with at least 140 individuals suspected of committing these activities. The DoJ says suspects include "identity thieves to prison inmates" who have conducted identity theft to apply for unemployment benefits. 

In one case, a defendant from Virginia pleaded guilty to obtaining close to half a million dollars on behalf of individuals ineligible for UI, including those currently incarcerated. 

"We will not allow American citizens or the critical benefits programs that have been created to assist them to be preyed upon by those seeking to take advantage of this national emergency," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian Boynton of the DoJ's Civil Division. "We are proud to work with our law enforcement partners to hold wrongdoers accountable and to safeguard taxpayer funds." 

In other coronavirus news, Facebook has frozen a page belonging to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro for repeatedly breaking the social media giant's rules on COVID-19 misinformation, including the promotion of fake herbal cures for the disease. As a result, the Venezuelan official will be unable to post for 30 days. False coronavirus claims were previously deleted and hidden by Facebook and Twitter after being published by former US President Donald Trump.

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