BALTIMORE – While residents in Cecil County and throughout the state are taking precautions to safeguard themselves against COVID-19, some people are stealing or attempting to steal money through coronavirus-based scams, according to the Maryland U.S. Attorney's Office.
Maryland U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur is "encouraging all Marylanders to be aware of individuals attempting to profit from the coronavirus pandemic," reported Marcia Murphy, a USAO spokeswoman.
"Coronavirus scams are being perpetrated around the country, including in Maryland. Recently, scammers sent e-mails to people in Maryland, purporting to be from a local hospital and offering coronavirus vaccines for a fee. In fact, no vaccine is currently available for the coronavirus," Murphy outlined.
Other reported scams also play on the public's fear and concern relating to ever-spreading coronavirus.
Some fraudsters are offering fake cures for the virus or posing as public health officials, Murphy said. Others are using websites that appear to be legitimate, but are actually fake websites that infect the users’ computers with harmful malware or seek personal information that can be later used to commit fraud, she added.
"Many of these scams target the most vulnerable, especially the elderly," Murphy noted.
As of Monday, such scams have not been reported in Cecil County, according to local law enforcement officials, who are encouraging residents to remain vigilant.
"Unfortunately, some people will take advantage of others if they are able during certain types of events, including this one," said Cecil County Sheriff's Office Lt. Michael Holmes, a CCSO spokesman. "We have not had any scams reported to us, but we are aware that there have been some in other (Maryland) jurisdictions."
Maryland State Police Lt. Jeffrey Kirschner, commander of the North East Barrack, also reported that no such scams in Cecil County have been reported to his agency. Kirschner urged residents to contact police if they believe someone has targeted them for a scam and to educate themselves on the COVID-19-related scams by checking official government websites containing information regarding that topic.
Hur is cautioning residents in Cecil County and throughout Maryland to scrutinize anyone who makes a contact with them regarding a COVID-19 vaccine - which does not exist - and to report any such interaction. He also reported that his office is prioritizing the prosecution of anyone charged with committing COVID-19 frauds.
“Fraudsters who are preying on citizens during this unprecedented public health crisis are reprehensible. My office and the entire law enforcement community are committed to bringing fraudsters who prey upon our most vulnerable citizens to justice. We will continue our outreach efforts to make the public aware of scams and frauds. I urge citizens to remain vigilant and to be skeptical of any telephone calls, e-mails, or websites that request personal information or banking information, while promising money or services that seem too good to be true," Hur said.
Late last week, U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr sent a memo to Hur and all other U.S. Attorneys in which he made the investigation of these scams and the individuals perpetrating them a priority, Murphy said. As a result, she added, federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies are open and ready to investigate these frauds.
"While employees of the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office are responsibly practicing social distancing, the office’s dedication to the safety of all Maryland citizens continues," Murphy said, adding that there are resources available to learn the facts about the coronavirus and how to protect yourself from scammers.
The Federal Trade Commission has consumer information about coronavirus scams on its website, including a complaint form to report scammers. Elderly victims may also call the newly launched Elder Fraud Hotline at 833-FRAUD-11 (833-372-8311), if they believe they are victims of a coronavirus scam—or any other type of fraud.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has guidelines on how to keep from becoming ill, and other information about the disease, on its website.
In his press release, Barr urged the public to report suspected fraud schemes related to COVID-19 by calling the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) hotline (1-866-720-5721) or by e-mailing the NCDF at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also to battle the scam problem, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen directed Hur and all other U.S. Attorneys to appoint a Coronavirus Fraud Coordinator to serve as the "legal counsel for the federal judicial district on matters relating to the coronavirus, direct the prosecution of coronavirus-related crimes, and to conduct outreach and awareness."
In addition to selling fake cures and sabotaging email accounts through COVID-19-related communications, other examples of coronavirus schemes include:
* Phishing emails from entities posing as the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
* Seeking donations fraudulently for illegitimate or non-existent charitable organizations.
* Medical providers obtaining patient information for COVID-19 testing and then using that information to fraudulently bill for other tests and procedures.
The NCDF can receive and enter complaints into a centralized system that can be accessed by all U.S. Attorneys, as well as Justice Department litigating and law enforcement components to identify, investigate and prosecute fraud schemes. The NCDF coordinates complaints with 16 additional federal law enforcement agencies, as well as state Attorneys General and local authorities.