U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigation’s (HSI) marks the one-year anniversary of the announcement of Operation Stolen Promise, the ongoing operation protecting the United States from COVID-19 related crime. Combining HSI’s investigative expertise in intellectual property and trade violations, financial fraud, and cybercrime, HSI and its partners have seized over $48 million in illicit proceeds, opened more than 1,000 criminal investigations and made more than 2,000 seizures of mislabeled, fraudulent, or prohibited COVID-19 vaccines, test kits, including more than 21.2 million counterfeit respirator masks prevented from reaching hospital workers and first responders since April 15, 2020.
“I applaud ICE HSI and its partners for their success in protecting the public, including our first responders, from dangerous counterfeits and schemes to defraud the public during the pandemic,” said Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas. “Since the outset of the pandemic, HSI has been at the forefront of U.S. government efforts to combat COVID-19-related fraud and criminal activity to keep our country safe.”
“Despite the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, criminals have continuously attempted to exploit the pandemic for illicit financial gain. Their actions have compromised legitimate trade, financial, and cyber systems and have endangered the health and lives of Americans,” said Acting ICE Director Tae D. Johnson. “HSI will continue to adapt to the criminal enterprise to protect the homeland from the increasing and evolving threat posed by COVID-19-related fraud and criminal activity, including the latest criminal trend: malicious websites involving illegitimate COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.”
Operation Stolen Promise has resulted in 267 arrests and scores of ongoing criminal investigations. At the onset of the pandemic, HSI identified individuals attempting to import and sell illegal pesticides claiming they could prevent the virus, defraud the government by selling nonexistent respirator masks, hoard and price gouge personal protective equipment (PPE), and sell fraudulent test kits and treatments, including misbranded chloroquine from China.
HSI later saw major fraud schemes involving the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and other COVID relief programs. The $48 million in total illicit proceeds seized includes more than $32 million in Small Business Association loan fraud.
One of HSI’s most significant and wide-ranging ongoing investigations involves a criminal organization selling and distributing counterfeit 3M N-95 masks throughout the United States. In February, HSI announced the prevention of millions of counterfeit N95 masks from reaching hospital workers and first responders. HSI has initiated 98 criminal investigations into counterfeit 3M respirators and seized more than $5 million in criminal proceeds derived from the sale of counterfeit 3M masks, in addition to preventing these masks from entering hospital and consumer supply chains.
In the latest trend, HSI is seeing a rise in criminals attempting to profit off vulnerable Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic by targeting people searching for online products and information on cures, vaccines, and other treatments.
In February, three Baltimore-area men were charged for a fraud scheme that replicated the website of a biotech company in order to attempt to sell COVID-19 vaccines. In March, HSI warned the public about a scam targeting consumers with promises of gifts and cash for taking a fraudulent post-vaccination survey.
Earlier this month, an investigation by HSI resulted in seizure of three domain names purporting to be biotechnology company websites with COVID-19 treatments – but allegedly were used to collect the personal information of individuals visiting the sites, in order to use the information for nefarious purposes, including fraud, phishing attacks, and deployment of malware.
To date, investigations by HSI have led to the disruption or seizure of 30 malicious replication websites purporting to be pharmaceutical companies that produce COVID-19 vaccines or therapeutics, and the identification of numerous dark web vendors unlawfully offering to sell COVID-19 vaccines.
HSI is a directorate of ICE, responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of over 10,400 employees consists of more than 7,100 Special Agents assigned to 220 cities throughout the United States, and 80 overseas locations in 53 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.