United Sates Attorney General William Barr has told federal prosecutors to prioritize cases of "wrongdoers" looking to seize on the global spread of coronavirus — formally known as COVID-19 — for illicit gain.
"In addition to ensuring that the justice system can continue functioning during the current national crisis, it is essential that the Department of Justice remain vigilant in detecting, investigating, and prosecuting wrongdoing related to the crisis," Barr said in a Monday memo to U.S. attorneys obtained by Blaze Media. In the document, the attorney general pointed to "reports of individuals and businesses selling fake cures" for the disease on the internet as well as "engaging in other forms of fraud," phishing and malware schemes.
"The pandemic is dangerous enough without wrongdoers seeking to profit from public panic, and this sort of conduct cannot be tolerated," Barr continued in the directive. "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 memo encouraged prosecutors to work with the Justice Department's various offices devoted the enforcement to consumer protection, fraud, and antitrust laws "for additional guidance on how to detect, investigate, and and prosecute these schemes." It also encouraged collaboration with state and local authorities "to both ensure that we hear about misconduct as quickly as possible and that all appropriate enforcement tools are available to punish it."
Barr's instructions to prosecutors are the latest step the department has taken to head off coronavirus-related criminal activity amid the ongoing spread of the disease. Last week, the attorney general put out a warning to U.S. businesses about violating antitrust laws through actions like price fixing or bid-rigging in the manufacture and sale of medical products like face masks and respirators.
"The Department of Justice 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," Barr said in a statement. "I am committed to ensuring that the department's resources are available to combat any wrongdoing and protect the public."
Other federal agencies have also made efforts to protect Americans from being defrauded during the current public health crisis.
Last week, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission sent warning letters to seven different companies "for selling fraudulent COVID-19 products," which they said were "unapproved drugs that pose significant risks to patient health and violate federal law."
The Secret Service has also sent out a warning for people to be on the lookout for online scam and fraud schemes as part of its mission to combat cyber crime.
"Criminals are opportunists, and as seen in the past, any major news event can become an opportunity for groups or individuals with malicious intentions. The Coronavirus is no different," the federal law enforcement agency said last week. "In fact, the Coronavirus is a prime opportunity for enterprising criminals because it plays on one of the basic human conditions…fear."