A Texas man has been sentenced to 15 months in prison for spreading a hoax related to the COVID-19 pandemic on social media, federal prosecutors said this week.
Christopher Charles Perez, 40, of San Antonio, was found guilty on two counts for violating a federal law that criminalizes the spread of false information and hoaxes related to biological weapons, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Texas said in a news release Monday.
Specifically, Perez "posted two threatening messages on Facebook in which he claimed to have paid someone who was infected with COVID-19 to lick items at grocery stores in the San Antonio area to scare people away from visiting the stores," prosecutors alleged.
After the Southwest Texas Fusion Center received an online tip on April 5, 2020, the FBI launched an investigation into the matter.
Authorities were sure to note that Perez's claims were found to be false based on the ensuing investigation and Perez's own admission.
Perez was also ordered to pay a $1,000 fine in addition to the prison sentence.
"Trying to scare people with the threat of spreading dangerous diseases is no joking matter," U.S. Attorney Ashley C. Hoff said in a statement. "This office takes seriously threats to harm the community and will prosecute them to the full extent of the law."
FBI San Antonio Division Special Agent in Charge Christopher Combs added, "Those who would threaten to use COVID-19 as a weapon against others will be held accountable for their actions, even if the threat was a hoax."
"Perez's actions were knowingly designed to spread fear and panic and today's sentencing illustrates the seriousness of this crime," Combs said.
Though Perez's claims were found to be a lie, similar behavior was reported at the start of the pandemic last year.
In late March 2020, authorities in Missouri charged a man with a terroristic threat after he filmed himself licking Walmart deodorants and posted the video to social media. At around the same time, another man was charged with intentionally coughing on a grocery store clerk at a Wegmans in New Jersey.
And in May 2020, a South Carolina woman was arrested on charges that she licked her hands, coughed, and touched food items at a grocery store as well as several surfaces at a nearby fast-food restaurant.