Virus-related crimes on rise
WASHINGTON — Thieves steal surgical masks and COVID-19 test kits. Hate groups encourage sick members to infect law enforcement officers. Imposters pose as public health officials. Con artists peddle fake cures and financial scams.
As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, so too do the crimes related to it — transgressions that capitalize on fear, panic and the urge to lay blame, and add to the burden on law enforcement agencies trying to protect vulnerable citizens.
“It is really disheartening in a time like this that someone would take advantage of the community and take them in a time of need,” Tucson, Arizona, Police Sgt. Pete Dugan said.
Everyday life has essentially stopped in many countries in a bid to slow the virus, and some crimes have been declining. But reports of virus-related fraud are on the rise, along with concerns about hate crimes.
Some hate groups have suggested tainting doorknobs or other surfaces with the virus so FBI and police officers fall ill.
“If any of you get this, I expect you to spend as much time as possible with our enemies,” one wrote.
Hundreds of masks have been stolen in Portland, Oregon, amid shortages for health care workers. 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 comes. Texas prosecutors brought charges against someone who falsely claimed on social media to have tested positive for COVID-19.
Meanwhile, police in Bowie, Maryland, are investigating reports of a man wearing an orange vest and blue surgical mask who approached people at two homes claiming to be inspecting for coronavirus. He actually entered one home before a resident confronted him. A similar scam was sweeping through Germany.
The World Health Organization 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.
In Uganda, the parliament speaker endorsed a businessman who said he had discovered a chemical that “instantly kills” the virus. Speaker Rebecca Kadaga announced that the businessman had offered to produce the “treatment” in Uganda and it would go on the market shortly.
Kadaga’s comments were widely mocked because the product is actually a disinfectant, according to the Ugandan firm that will produce the chemical, not to be ingested.
New York officials recently ordered the Jim Bakker television show to stop marketing colloidal silver products.
Fraudsters purport to collect contaminated banknotes in South Africa. And police bust a clinic selling false testing kits in Kenya.
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.
“We have already seen fraudsters using the COVID-19 pandemic to scam people looking to buy medical supplies online … and targeting people who may be vulnerable or increasingly isolated at home,” Graeme Biggar, director general of the National Economic Crime Center in the U.K., said in a statement.
In the U.S., the Justice Department created a central fraud hotline (1-866-720-5721 or firstname.lastname@example.org) and has ordered U.S. attorneys to appoint special coronavirus fraud coordinators.
Meanwhile, marketing schemers have quickly pivoted to offering “senior care packages” that include hand sanitizer or even a purported vaccine, which doesn’t exist.