COVID-19 has drastically changed our lives in a remarkably short amount of time.
Hope, for many, has become a bitter ideal and something just beyond reach, as we see millions of people across the nation being affected by the rippling changes of this virus. Although the great majority of citizens have been lending an inspirational amount of support to one another, there are still those who would seek to profit off of the fear and uncertainty running rampant parts of our country.
“It’s a perfect ecosystem for somebody like a fraudster to operate in.”
Words spoken by Craig Carpentino, who is the U.S. attorney for New Jersey as well as the head of the Justice Department’s COVID-19 price gouging and hoarding task force.
Apparently the virus pandemic had been causing all sorts of illicit activity, including price gouging, illegal hoarding of essential goods, false creation and sale of “miracle cures” or treatments for the virus, and even operations known as “advance-fee schemes”, in which people are offering to sell millions of dollars worth of merchandise contingent on a sizeable advance from the buyer, but end up never receiving the merchandise and losing their advance payment fee.
One sinister example of this type of scheme involved a man named Christopher Parris from Georgia, who sold $750 million worth of masks and other protective equipment to the Department of Veterans Affairs. However, the merchandise offered did not even exist in the quantities offered by Parris.
Why would business organizations fork over an obscene amount of money, upfront, without receiving some sort of guarantee beforehand? It shows how desperate the times have become and Steve Merrill, the head of the FBI’s financial crimes section, cautions the public to beware of these criminals, who are apparently appearing in many different places around the country.
“We’re getting many complaints that different entities are entering into these agreements, paying money upfront, sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars, and may or may not get any masks or other PPE ordered at all…our guidance to the public is to please me wary of these frauds and solicitations.”
Another case that was deemed the first criminal case under the Defense Production Act, a man in Long Island, New York named Amardeep Singh had allegedly stockpiled more than 5 tons of medical equipment, including masks and gloves, in his retail store and warehouse. He was then selling the equipment in a section of his store marked “COVID-19 Essentials” at heart wrenching rates. The disposable masks, for example, were being sold at an alleged markup of over 1000% their normal cost!
These types of selfish, predatory behaviors are just a few examples on a long list of cases that have been surfacing since the onset of the pandemic just a few months ago. Unfortunately, Carpentino and Merrill both agree that this is only the beginning. Due to the extraordinarily large $2 trillion stimulus relief fund that is being issued to people across the nation, even more cases of fraud are expected to come to the fore.
“What we’re worried about is that not only do we have these existing conditions, but we are awaiting — like everybody in the country — the arrival of $2 trillion to hit the streets. And anytime there’s that much money out there, you can just multiply the amount of frauds that are going to take place. So we’re preparing for many more complaints to come in and new schemes to arrive on a daily basis.”
Merrill concludes with a heavy reality of the circumstances placed before us. Great relief comes with great consequences; with those who seek to take advantage of these circumstances, combined with the natural threat of the virus, we must be more relentless now in our perseverance of hope amidst this pandemic than we previously may have assumed.
John Rosenbaum is an Orange County worker’s compensation attorney having served the county for decades.