A website falsely claimed it was selling coronavirus vaccine kits which do not exist yet. Photo by Spc. Michael Schwenk/U.S. Army National Guard/UPI | License Photo
March 23 (UPI) -- The Department of Justice has won a temporary restraining order against a website it accuses of engaging in a wire fraud scheme by fraudulently offering vaccines to the coronavirus -- the first such action taken in federal court to combat fraud related to the pandemic.
In a statement on Sunday, the Justice Department said the enforcement action was filed in Austin against the website "coronavirusmedicalkit.com," accusing it of attempting to profit from "the confusion and widespread fear surrounding COVID-19."
According to prosecutors, the website claimed to offer access to World Health Organization vaccine kits for the cost of a $4.95 shipping charge. No such vaccine has yet been produced, the Justice Department said.
The temporary restraining order, issued by U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman, forces the registrar to immediately block public access to the website while an investigation of the website and its operators is pursued.
"The Department of Justice will not tolerate criminal exploitation of this national emergency for personal gain," said Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt of the Department of Justice's Civil Division.
News of the enforcement action follows Attorney General William Barr on Friday urging the public to report suspected fraud schemes attempting to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed nearly 15,000 people across the globe, including nearly 500 people in the United States, based on a live tally by Johns Hopkins University.
According to the Department of Justice, Barr has directed all U.S. attorneys to prioritize investigating and prosecuting COVID-19 fraud cases.
"At a time when we face such unprecedented challenges with the COVID-19 crisis, Americans are understandably desperate to find solutions to keep their families safe and healthy," said Special Agent in Charge Christopher Combs of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's San Antonio Field Office. "Fraudsters who seek to profit from their fear and uncertainty by selling bogus vaccines or cures, not only steal limited resources from our communities, they pose an even greater danger by spreading misinformation and creating confusion."
Bass Pro Shops marketing manager David Smith (R) carries a box of donated face masks into Mercy Health in Chesterfield, Mo., on May 13. The company is donating 1 million FDA-approved ASTM Level 1 Procedure Face Masks to healthcare workers and first responders working on the front lines of the pandemic. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo