Coronavirus-Related Crimes Increase

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Informative article featured in the Seattle Times by Michael Balsamo, Colleen Long and Rodney Muhumuza reports that Coronavirus-related fraud are on the rise, along with concerns about hate crimes.

The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks hate groups, blames the virus for elevating racist and anti-Semitic messages, including suggesting that Jews are somehow responsible for the pandemic. Some hate groups have suggested tainting doorknobs or other surfaces with the virus so FBI and police officers fall ill.

Hundreds of masks have been stolen in Portland, Oregon, amid shortages for health care workers. Also, a Missouri man who was coughing told two store clerks he had a high fever. He was arrested after police said he threatened to give the employees coronavirus. People in Pennsylvania and Illinois were accused of similar crimes. Texas prosecutors brought charges against someone who falsely claimed on social media to have tested positive for COVID-19.

In a memo issued Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen told prosecutors they could charge people who threaten to spread the new coronavirus under U.S. terrorism statutes because the Justice Department considers it a “biological agent” under the law. In such cases, suspects could be charged with a number of offenses, including possessing or developing a biological agent as a weapon, he said.

“Threats or attempt to use COVID-19 as a weapon against Americans will not be tolerated,” Rosen wrote in the memo to U.S. attorneys across the country and the heads of all Justice Department agencies, including the FBI.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and other authorities are also working to debunk spurious claims about possible cures. They include false assertions that silver, bleach, and garlic could protect against the coronavirus, or that bananas prevent it. The WHO also says criminals are increasingly posing as WHO officials in calls and phishing emails to swipe information or money. The United Nations also set up a website to help prevent fraud.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom’s National Fraud Intelligence Bureau has received more than 100 reports of virus-related scams, with losses totaling more than $1.1 million (970,000 pounds).

In the United States, marketing schemers have quickly pivoted to offering “senior care packages” that include hand sanitizer or even a purported vaccine, which doesn’t exist. Some falsely claim that Trump has ordered that seniors get tested. It’s all a trick to get personal information that can be used to bill federal and state health programs, health officials said.

“It’s a straight-up ruse to get your Medicare number or your Social Security number under the guise of having a test kit or a sanitary kit sent to you,” Christian Schrank, assistant inspector general for investigations at Health and Human Services.