- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Justice Department this weekend took the first federal action against an alleged coronavirus fraudster, securing a temporary restraining order against a website falsely claiming to sell a “coronavirus vaccine,” the department announced late Sunday.

The department accused the operators of coronavirusmedicalkit.com of “engaging in a wire fraud scheme seeking to profit from the confusion and widespread fear surrounding COVID-19.”

“The website falsely claims that the World Health Organization is giving away free vaccine kits and that individuals who visit the website can order such a kit by paying $4.95 for shipping,” department lawyers wrote in a court filing. “The World Health Organization is not offering ‘free vaccine kits’ for COVID-19. Indeed, there exists no known vaccine that is effective against COVID-19.”

U.S. District Judge Robert Pittman issued a temporary restraining order against the site and its unidentified operators to shut down.

However, the site was back up by 7:30 p.m. Sunday.

The Justice Department did not identify who is operating the website, filing the civil action as a John Doe complaint.

An entity called NameCheap Inc. registered the site on behalf of an unknown person on March 3, according to court filings. Department officials had sent a letter to NameCheap last week to notify it of the alleged fraud.

NameCheap said Monday it is working with the authorities to both proactively prevent and take down any fraudulent or abusive domains or websites related to COVID19 or the coronavirus. Richard Kirkendall, CEO of NameCheap, said it has banned the terms COVID19 or coronavirus from its available domain name search tool so individuals won’t register them in the future.

“The Department of Justice will not tolerate criminal exploitation of this national emergency for personal gain,” Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt of the Justice Department’s Civil Division said in a statement. “We will use every resource at the government’s disposal to act quickly to shut down these most despicable scammers.”

The coronavirusmedicalkit.com website says all a customer needs to do is add water and the drugs and vaccines “are ready to be administered.” It also says the vaccine kit comes in two parts, one that holds pellets that ultimately synthesizes the end product and another that holds pellets to create the drug compound.

“Mix two parts together in a chosen combination, add water and the treatment is ready,” the website says.

The site also includes a video from NBC News detailing the coronavirus pandemic and quotes from unknown individuals discussing the seriousness of the pandemic. However, none of the individuals promote the alleged vaccine.

Attorney General William P. Barr last week urged federal prosecutors across the country to prioritize coronavirus-related cases.

“This pandemic is dangerous enough without wrongdoers seeking to profit from public panic and this sort of conduct cannot be tolerated,” he wrote in a memo to U.S. Attorneys across the country.

In the past week, local prosecutors have brought criminal charges against individuals for falsely claiming to have been infected with the virus and issued citations for price gouging.

This weekend’s action is perhaps a signal that the Justice Department intends to become more active in pursuing cases of alleged coronavirus fraud.

• Jeff Mordock can be reached at jmordock@washingtontimes.com.

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