CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) – United States Attorney Mike Stuart for the Southern District of West Virginia, United States Attorney Bill Powell for the Northern District of West Virginia and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced the formation of the West Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Task Force to identify, investigate and prosecute fraud related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“West Virginians always band together in times of need and times of crisis,” Stuart says. “My fellow U.S. Attorney Bill Powell, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and our federal and state law enforcement partners have joined me in forming this statewide task force to protect West Virginians from fraudsters attempting to exploit a national crisis for personal gain. There’s nothing more despicable. We will use every tool available to us at the federal and state levels to ensure the safety of our citizens and the safety of their wallets during this crisis.”
Stuart’s office says the West Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Task Force is a joint federal and state partnership that will be led by Assistant United States Attorneys from both the Southern and Northern Districts of West Virginia and a Deputy West Virginia Attorney General in partnership with experienced fraud investigators from the FBI, Homeland Security Investigations HSI, the IRS-Criminal Investigation, the West Virginia State Police and the West Virginia Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division.
“Though we are not a big state, when our citizens are preyed upon, Mountaineer pride and determination assure that we will stand together like no other. I stand with my colleagues U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, and our law enforcement partners in promising aggressive pursuit of those taking advantage of our citizens during the current public health crisis. We will devote all necessary resources,” Powell says.
The task force will review and investigate all credible leads of fraud associated with the coronavirus pandemic, regardless of the loss amount, focusing on schemes to exploit vulnerable populations, including the elderly, and concerned citizens, according to Stuart. Federal prosecutors from the Southern and Northern Districts of West Virginia, and attorneys from the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office will meet and confer with their agency counterparts from the FBI, HSI, IRS-CI, West Virginia State Police and the state’s Consumer Protection Division on a regular basis to prioritize cases and surge resources where needed.
“Since the Governor’s declaration, our Consumer Protection Division and its investigators have fielded hundreds of reports from those faced with price gouging, landlord-tenant issues and vacation/event cancellations,” Morrisey said. “The Consumer Protection Division has already sent multiple warning letters to businesses on enforcement matters. These are unparalleled times in which we live, and that’s why I am honored to join forces with U.S. Attorneys Bill Powell and Mike Stuart, as together, by combining the investigative and civil enforcement powers of the state Attorney General’s Office with the criminal prosecutorial authority of the federal government, our state is very well positioned to protect its citizens in this time of peril.”
Assistant United States Attorney Erik Goes in the Southern District of West Virginia and Assistant United States Attorney Andrew Cogar in the Northern District of West Virginia and West Virginia Deputy Attorney General / Consumer Protection and Antitrust Division Director Ann Haight will be spearheading the efforts of the task force.
Stuarts office says the following are examples scams related to the pandemic:
- Treatment scams: Scammers are offering to sell fake cures, vaccines, and advice on unproven treatments for COVID-19.
- Supply scams: Scammers are creating fake shops, websites, social media accounts, and email addresses claiming to sell medical supplies currently in high demand, such as surgical masks. When consumers attempt to purchase supplies through these channels, fraudsters pocket the money and never provide the promised supplies.
- Provider scams: Scammers are also contacting people by phone and email, pretending to be doctors and hospitals that have treated a friend or relative for COVID-19, and demanding payment for that treatment.
- Charity scams: Scammers are soliciting donations for individuals, groups, and areas affected by COVID-19.
- Phishing scams: Scammers posing as national and global health authorities, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are sending phishing emails designed to trick recipients into downloading malware or providing personal identifying and financial information.
- App scams: Scammers are also creating and manipulating mobile apps designed to track the spread of COVID-19 to insert malware that will compromise users’ devices and personal information.
- Investment scams: Scammers are offering online promotions on various platforms, including social media, claiming that the products or services of publicly traded companies can prevent, detect, or cure COVID-19, and that the stock of these companies will dramatically increase in value as a result. These promotions are often styled as “research reports,” make predictions of a specific “target price,” and relate to microcap stocks or low-priced stocks issued by the smallest of companies with limited publicly available information.
- Price Gouging scams: Individuals and businesses may sell essential goods, like hand sanitizer, for significantly higher prices than in a non-emergency setting. It is legally considered price gouging when the price of one of these products increases more than 10 percent its price in effect 10 days prior to an emergency declaration.
To report suspicious activity regarding the COVID-19 virus, call the National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline at 1-866-720-5721 or email at email@example.com. To report fraud directly to the FBI, visit their website. People can also call HSI’s general tip-line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or email the agency’s Intellectual Property Rights Center at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Any West Virginia consumer wishing to report scams, price gouging or other matters of people trying to take advantage of consumers during the COVID-19 pandemic, can call the state’s Consumer Protection Hotline at 1-800-368-8808. Written complaints can be filed at www.wvago.gov.
The latest information on new scams is also available at www.irs.gov.