Attorney General Prioritizes Prosecuting COVID-19 Scammers

Jan-Willem Kunnen/

William Barr directed federal attorneys to go after people behind phony cures and phishing schemes. 

U.S. federal attorneys received a very clear direction from Attorney General William Barr in a memo Monday: “remain vigilant in detecting, investigating, and prosecuting wrongdoing related to” the COVID-19 public health crisis. 

Following an influx of reports that scammers and cyber criminals are cashing in on the chaos, Barr launched the memorandum with an explicit directive to encourage deliberate actions to curb the malicious activities. 

The memo, first obtained by ABC reporter Alexander Mallin and subsequently published on Twitter Monday night, also includes a directive regarding aims federal officials should take to protect people’s health as America’s justice system continues to operate as the outbreak persists. And as so many Justice insiders continue to go about their daily functions, Barr emphasized the need for prosecutors to use all the resources in their wheelhouse to identify and punish “wrongdoing” that’s been inspired by the rapidly spreading coronavirus. 

“This pandemic is dangerous enough without wrongdoers seeking to profit from panic and this sort of conduct cannot be tolerated,” Barr wrote. “Every U.S. Attorney’s Office is thus hereby directed to prioritize the detection, investigation and prosecution of all criminal conduct related to the current pandemic.” 

The attorney general cited recent reports of malware hidden inside seemingly innocent mobile phone apps that appear to track the virus, incidents of entities posing as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization and others while putting people at risk through phishing emails, and reports of “individuals and businesses selling fake cures for COVID-19 online and engaging in other forms of fraud.” With this in mind, federal attorneys should consult directly with officials in Justice’s specific offices that work on fraud, antitrust and consumer protection for more information on detecting and dealing with the “schemes,” Barr said. He also encouraged the memo’s readers to collaborate with state and local officials to "both ensure that we hear about misconduct as quickly as possible and that all appropriate enforcement tools are available to punish it."

The correspondence marks the department’s latest move to combat fraudulent behavior and criminal activities that have piggybacked off the COVID-19 pandemic. Barr released a statement last week spelling out the agency’s aims to potentially prosecute any U.S. company that engage in price-fixing or bid-rigging connected to the manufacturing, distribution or sale of medical products such as face masks, respirators and diagnostics.

“The [department] stands ready to make sure that bad actors do not take advantage of emergency response efforts, healthcare providers, or the American people during this crucial time,” he wrote on March 9.