The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is cracking down on scam artists preying on the vulnerabilities of others during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This week, the Justice Department announced it had obtained a Temporary Restraining Order in federal court in Tampa, Florida, against Thu Phan Dinh, Tran Khanh, and Nguyen Duy Toan, all residents of Vietnam, who allegedly engaged in a wire fraud scheme seeking to profit from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The action was initiated based on an investigation by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HIS), in coordination with the Vietnam Ministry of Public Security.
According to the complaint, the three operated more than 300 websites selling products like hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes — items that were much needed but scare during the early months of the pandemic. Thousands of people in all 50 states fell victim to their trap, paying for items purportedly sold through these sites but never receiving the products they purchased.
The defendants fooled consumers and tried to hide from law enforcement by setting up hundreds of email accounts and accounts with a U.S.-based payment processor. They also had fraudulent contact information including fake addresses and phone numbers on their websites. Countless businesses and individuals unaffiliated with the fraudsters received calls of complaint from consumers demanding the merchandise they paid for or a refund on what they had paid.
In response to the DOJ’s request for injunctive relief, U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell issued an emergency ex parte temporary restraining order requiring that the registrar and registries of the defendants’ fraudulent websites take immediate action to disable them.
“Unfortunately the Global Pandemic has given criminals and criminal organizations a new opportunity to take advantage of our communities by targeting vulnerable populations through financial fraud schemes, the importation of counterfeit pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, and illicit websites defrauding consumers, which continue to compromise legitimate trade and financial systems,” said HSI Tampa Acting Special Agent in Charge Kevin Sibley. “Through our investigations under Operation Stolen Promise, HSI will continue to disrupt and dismantle these criminal networks as well as those who are exploiting the pandemic for their own financial gain.”