The Department of Justice has raised its first federal court action against online fraud relating to the coronavirus pandemic, on Sunday taking steps to shutter a fraudulent website that claimed to give away free coronavirus vaccines.
The website, “coronavirusmedicalkit.com,” was purporting to give away free vaccine kits that it claimed were manufactured by the World Health Organization (WHO), according to Department of Justice (DoJ) court documents. In reality, website operators were engaging in a wire fraud scheme. They first asked buyers to input their payment card information on the website in order to pay a shipping charge of $4.95. Then, they would steal that credit card and personal information in order to carry out fraudulent purchases and identity theft.
“In fact, there are currently no legitimate COVID-19 vaccines and the WHO is not distributing any such vaccine,” according to the DoJ in a Sunday post. “In response to the department’s request, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman issued a temporary restraining order requiring that the registrar of the fraudulent website immediately take action to block public access to it.”
The DoJ is continuing to investigate the website. The temporary restraining order against the site, which has been issued in the meantime, orders the site’s domain host, NameCheap, to immediately take down the website. The website was live as of March 21, according to the DoJ; but as of Monday, the website is currently down.
When it was live, the website purported to be legitimate, using a photograph of Dr. Anthony Fauci (the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health).
“You just need to add water, and the drugs and vaccines are ready to be administered,” the website said (see a picture of the website below). “There are two parts to the kit: One holds pellets containing the chemical machinery that synthesizes the end product, and the other holds pellets containing instructions that tell the drug which compound to create. Mix two parts together in a chosen combination, add water, and the treatment is ready.”‘
Despite the fraudulent website’s claims, the WHO on an information page on its website has said that vaccines for the coronavirus do not exist: “To date, there is no vaccine and no specific antiviral medicine to prevent or treat COVID-2019. However, those affected should receive care to relieve symptoms. People with serious illness should be hospitalized. Most patients recover thanks to supportive care.”
The department’s crackdown comes days after the DoJ announced it would prioritize the prosecution of cybercrimes and fraudulent activity related to the pandemic, with Attorney General William P. Barr urging the public to report suspected fraud schemes related to the coronavirus. As part of this, the government is employing a federal statute that permits federal courts to issue injunctions to prevent harm to potential victims of fraudulent schemes.
The DoJ’s actions come in response to cybercriminals tapping into the fears around coronavirus by launching an offensive of cyberattacks. For instance, researchers have found a spate of malicious, botnet-driven emails using the coronavirus as a theme, launching phishing and malware attacks. Other attacks include malicious websites and apps purporting to share coronavirus related information (but that actually access victims’ devices); and fraudulent websites that sell fake coronavirus cures.
The DoJ on Sunday urged website users to always independently verify the identity of any company, charity, or individual that contacts them regarding COVID-19. In addition, the department warned of scammers employing web addresses that differ only slightly from those belonging to the entities they are impersonating (for instance, using “cdc.com” or “cdc.org” instead of “cdc.gov”).
“The Department of Justice will not tolerate criminal exploitation of this national emergency for personal gain,” said Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division in a statement. “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.”