Attorney General William Barr issued a directive to federal prosecutors to prioritize investigations of scam artists and hackers looking to exploit the coronavirus pandemic.
“The pandemic is dangerous enough without wrongdoers seeking to profit from public panic, and this sort of conduct cannot be tolerated,” Barr said in a memo Monday. “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.”
Barr said, “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.”
There are more than 181,546 confirmed coronavirus cases around the world and at least 7,126 confirmed deaths due to the infection, according to Johns Hopkins University’s interactive map. There were 4,632 COVID-19 cases in the United States and 85 deaths due to the virus as of Monday night.
The attorney general pointed to individuals and businesses “selling fake cures for COVID-19 online and engaging in other forms of fraud,” as well as phishing emails from fraudsters posing as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He also warned about cybercriminals inserting malware onto mobile apps designed to track the spread of the virus.
Barr encouraged the U.S. attorneys to consult with the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch, the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section, and the Antitrust Division’s Criminal Program “for additional guidance on how to detect, investigate, and prosecute these schemes.” He also encouraged the federal prosecutors “to work closely 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.”
Last week, Barr warned any “bad actors” against exploiting the coronavirus crisis in the U.S. through price-fixing or any other antitrust schemes. The Justice Department said it will “hold accountable anyone who violates the antitrust laws of the U.S. in connection with the manufacturing, distribution, or sale of public health products,” including face masks, respirators, sterile gloves, and diagnostic equipment.
On Monday, the attorney general also thanked the U.S. attorneys for their “tremendous service to the nation, particularly during times of crisis such as these” and asked them to pass along his appreciation to their staff.
Barr urged the federal prosecutors to “work closely with the Chief Judge in your district to ensure that every appropriate precaution is taken to protect the health of those who practice in or are called before our courts” and to “take every appropriate precaution to protect those who make the system function, including the judges, court staff, lawyers, parties, jurors, and witnesses who appear in courtrooms.” Barr said on Tuesday he would notify the Judicial Conference of the U.S. “of our commitment to safeguard the entire court family.”
During a Monday news conference at the White House, President Trump advised the public to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people while state and local governments shut down restaurants, bars, and theaters across the country. Trump said, “People are talking about July, August, something like that” for when the COVID-19 crisis in the U.S. might subside.
U.S. stocks dropped sharply on Monday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average closing just above the level it was at on Trump’s inauguration.
On Sunday, the CDC issued new guidance for large events and mass gatherings, recommending that, for the next eight weeks, organizers nationwide cancel or postpone in-person events of fifty people or more as the U.S. tries to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which originated in China.
The National Security Council sent out a tweet late Sunday denying rumors swirling on social media that the federal government was about to impose a nationwide quarantine during the COVID-19 outbreak, bluntly calling the text messages “FAKE.”
“As we face the nationwide spread of COVID-19, I want to emphasize that the critical mission of the Department of Justice must and will continue,” Barr said in his memo. “We will ensure that the Department’s law enforcement functions operate effectively during this outbreak. It is vital that we work together to safeguard our justice system and thus the safety and security of our nation.”