U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Monday vowed vigorous enforcement against unlawful profiteering from the coronavirus crisis, warning the hoarding of scarce “health and medical resources” to drive up prices and make a windfall will draw the attention of the U.S. Justice Department.
Barr, appearing next to President Donald Trump at the White House, said a prosecutor in each U.S. attorney’s office across the country has been tasked with leading the pursuit of fraud and other crimes stemming from the coronavirus outbreak.
Speaking at the daily briefing on the Trump administration’s response to the global health crisis, Barr said the enforcement against price gouging would focus on those hoarding medical equipment, such as masks, on an “industrial scale” with the goal of influencing the market.
“If you are sitting on a warehouse with masks—surgical masks—you will be hearing a knock on your door,” he said.
Barr’s appearance came just days after the Justice Department filed its first lawsuit stemming from the attorney general’s call to crack down on fraud related to the novel coronavirus.
In Texas federal court, the Justice Department targeted the operators of the website “coronavirusmedicalkit.com,” accusing them of fraudulently seeking to profit off the “confusion and widespread fear” surrounding the pandemic.
The website purported to offer World Health Organization vaccine kits in exchange for a $4.95 shipping charge, to be paid by credit card, when in fact there are no legitimate vaccines to treat COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
A federal judge in Texas handed down an order Sunday requiring that the registrar of the fraudulent website immediately take action to block public access to it.
“The Department of Justice will not tolerate criminal exploitation of this national emergency for personal gain,” said Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt, the head of the Justice Department’s civil division.
“We will use every resource at the government’s disposal to act quickly to shut down these most despicable of scammers, whether they are defrauding consumers, committing identity theft, or delivering malware,” he explained.
Barr had directed prosecutors earlier in the week to prioritize investigations of scammers and others seeking to fraudulently profit from the pandemic.
“Sadly, there are going to be people who try to take advantage of others in these distressing times. That’s definitely coming, unfortunately. It’s the history of the world,” said Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner Joel Cohen, a leader of the firm’s white-collar defense and investigations group, in an interview last week.
“The risks for many legitimate businesses is that they might become inadvertently associated with others who are offering a wide range of products or ideas that skirt around the edges of propriety,” he said.