Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

US Justice Department files its first action against fraudulent coronavirus websites

The website falsely claimed it had access to COVID-19 vaccine kits.

How cyber criminals are trying to exploit coronavirus fears

The United States Department of Justice (DoJ) announced on Sunday it has raised its first action in federal court to combat against online fraud related to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.

The action was taken against a website that DoJ said falsely claims to offer vaccine kits from the World Health Organization (WHO) in exchange for a $4.95 shipping charge. When unsuspecting victims order the fake vaccine kit, the website asks for the victim's credit card information. 

There are currently no legitimate COVID-19 vaccines and the WHO is not distributing any such vaccine.

According to a statement from DoJ, the regulatory authority has accused the website of engaging in wire fraud to seek profit from the confusion and widespread fear surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak. 

"The Department of Justice will not tolerate criminal exploitation of this national emergency for personal gain," said Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt of the DoJ's Civil Division. "We will use every resource at the government's disposal to act quickly to shut down these most despicable of scammers, whether they are defrauding consumers, committing identity theft, or delivering malware."

Since filing the action, US District Judge Robert Pitman has issued a temporary restraining order requiring the website's owner to block public access to it, the DoJ said. The order also demands that Namecheap, the site's domain host, take the website down.

"At a time when we face such unprecedented challenges with the COVID-19 crisis, Americans are understandably desperate to find solutions to keep their families safe and healthy," said Christopher Combs, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's San Antonio Field Office.  

"Fraudsters who seek to profit from their fear and uncertainty, by selling bogus vaccines or cures, not only steal limited resources from our communities, they pose an even greater danger by spreading misinformation and creating confusion. During this difficult time, protecting our communities from these reprehensible fraud schemes will remain one of the FBI's highest priorities," Combs added.

Meanwhile, in Australia, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's (ACCC) Scamwatch has received 94 reports of scams about COVID-19 and has warned that the number of scams are expected to increase.

The COVID-19 scams have comprised of phishing scams sent via email or text message that claim to provide official information on coronavirus but are attempts to try and obtain personal data, as well as people receiving misinformation about cures for coronavirus and investment scams claiming coronavirus has created opportunities to make money.   

"Unfortunately, scammers are using the uncertainty around COVID-19, or coronavirus, to take advantage of people," ACCC Deputy Chair Delia Rickard said. "Understandably, people want information on the pandemic, but they should be wary of emails or text messages claiming to be from experts. For the most up-to-date information about the coronavirus, visit the Department of Health and the World Health Organization websites directly." 

At the time of writing, WHO was reporting over 294,000 confirmed cases, with almost 13,000 fatalities as a result of the virus. The United States has reported over 15,000 cases and 200 deaths.