Mar 29, 2020 11:00 AM

Coronavirus-related crimes capitalize on global fear, panic

Posted Mar 29, 2020 11:00 AM

Attorney General William Barr says the Justice Department has already launched investigations into people who are hoarding supplies and price gouging.  Barr says, “If you are sitting on a warehouse with surgical masks, you will be hearing a knock on your door."

WASHINGTON (AP) — Thieves steal surgical masks. A clinic sells fake COVID-19 tests. Hate groups encourage sick members to infect law enforcement officers. Imposters pose as public health officials. Con artists peddle fake cures and financial scams.

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, so too do the crimes related to it — transgressions that capitalize on fear, panic and the urge to lay blame, and add to the burden on law enforcement agencies trying to protect vulnerable citizens.

“It is really disheartening in a time like this that someone would take advantage of the community and take them in a time of need,” Tucson, Arizona, Police Sgt. Pete Dugan said.

Everyday life has essentially stopped in many countries in a bid to slow the virus, and some crimes have been declining. But reports of virus-related fraud are on the rise, along with concerns about hate crimes.

U.S. President Donald Trump and others have taken to calling the virus the “Chinese coronavirus,” even as scientists say the disease has nothing to do with Asian ethnicity. But the president dismissed the idea that his comments could fuel hate crimes.

“It’s not racist at all,” Trump has said.

In Los Angeles, a 16-year-old boy of Asian descent said other students bullied him and accused him of carrying the virus. In New York, a man on the subway sprayed an Asian passenger with Febreze and verbally abused him. State Attorney General Letitia James set up a hotline for New Yorkers to report hate crimes in the country’s outbreak epicenter.

The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks hate groups, blames the virus for elevating racist and anti-Semitic messages, including suggesting that Jews are somehow responsible for the pandemic. Some hate groups have suggested tainting doorknobs or other surfaces with the virus so FBI and police officers fall ill.

“If any of you get this, I expect you to spend as much time as possible with our enemies,” one wrote.

Hundreds of masks have been stolen in Portland, Oregon, amid shortages for health care workers. A Missouri man who was coughing told two store clerks he had a high fever. He was arrested after police said he threatened to give the employees coronavirus. People in Pennsylvania and Illinois were accused of similar crimes. Texas prosecutors brought charges against someone who falsely claimed on social media to have tested positive for COVID-19.

Counterfeit COVID-19 test kits intercepted at Los Angeles International airport -photo courtesy U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Counterfeit COVID-19 test kits intercepted at Los Angeles International airport -photo courtesy U.S. Customs and Border Protection

In a memo issued Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen told prosecutors they could charge people who threaten to spread the new coronavirus under U.S. terrorism statutes because the Justice Department considers it a “biological agent” under the law. In such cases, suspects could be charged with a number of offenses, including possessing or developing a biological agent as a weapon, he said.

“Threats or attempt to use COVID-19 as a weapon against Americans will not be tolerated,” Rosen wrote in the memo to U.S. attorneys across the country and the heads of all Justice Department agencies, including the FBI.

Meanwhile, police in Bowie, Maryland, are investigating reports of a man wearing an orange vest and blue surgical mask who approached people at two homes claiming to be inspecting for coronavirus. He actually entered one home before a resident confronted him. A similar scam was sweeping through Germany.

The World Health Organization and other authorities are also working to debunk spurious claims about possible cures. They include false assertions that silver, bleach, and garlic could protect against the coronavirus, or that bananas prevent it.

In Uganda, the parliament speaker endorsed a businessman who said he had discovered a chemical that “instantly kills” the virus. Speaker Rebecca Kadaga announced that the businessman had offered to produce the “treatment” in Uganda and it would go on the market shortly.

Kadaga’s comments were widely mocked because the product is actually a disinfectant, according to the Ugandan firm that will produce the chemical, not to be ingested.

New York officials recently ordered the Jim Bakker television show to stop marketing colloidal silver products. Trump himself falsely suggested a drug typically used to treat malaria patients had been cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the coronavirus.

Fraudsters purport to collect contaminated banknotes in South Africa. And police busted a clinic selling false testing kits in Kenya.

The United Kingdom’s National Fraud Intelligence Bureau has received more than 100 reports of virus-related scams, with losses totaling more than $1.1 million (970,000 pounds).

“We have already seen fraudsters using the COVID-19 pandemic to scam people looking to buy medical supplies online ... and targeting people who may be vulnerable or increasingly isolated at home,” Graeme Biggar, director general of the National Economic Crime Center in the U.K., said in a statement.

In the U.S., the Justice Department created a central fraud hotline (1-866-720-5721 or [email protected]) and has ordered U.S. attorneys to appoint special coronavirus fraud coordinators.

Meanwhile, marketing schemers have quickly pivoted to offering “senior care packages” that include hand sanitizer or even a purported vaccine, which doesn’t exist. Some falsely claim that Trump has ordered that seniors get tested.

It’s all a trick to get personal information that can be used to bill federal and state health programs, health officials said.

“It’s a straight-up ruse to get your Medicare number or your Social Security number under the guise of having a test kit or a sanitary kit sent to you,” Christian Schrank, assistant inspector general for investigations at Health and Human Services.

The worldwide outbreak has sickened more than 350,000 people and left more than 15,000 people dead. For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The World Health Organization says criminals are increasingly posing as WHO officials in calls and phishing emails to swipe information or money. The United Nations also set up a website to help prevent fraud.

But the warning came too late for an 83-year-old woman in Mannheim, Germany, who was convinced by scammers to hand over a five-figure sum, claiming it was for a relative who had fallen ill. Police, who would not give an exact figure on the stolen euros, said the woman was told that a driver would pick up the money from outside her front door, to avoid possible infection.

By the time she got suspicious, the money was gone.

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Continue Reading Panhandle Post
Mar 29, 2020 11:00 AM
Virus outbreak poses massive challenges for US charities
The pandemic stopped the annual Girl Scout cookie sale. Above is Alliance, NE councilwomen Annora Bentley with Girl Scouts in Box Butte County. 

NEW YORK (AP)— With its global scope and its staying power, the coronavirus outbreak poses unprecedented challenges for charities and nonprofit groups that rely on donations.

The American Red Cross faces a severe blood shortage due to the cancellation of nearly 2,700 blood drives. The Girl Scouts' annual cookie sale — vital to the group's finances — has been disrupted by a top-level plea to halt in-person sales.

And a 21-member coalition of major nonprofits is pleading with Congress to allocate $60 billion so charities can keep their staff on the job and ramp up assistance programs.

The CEO of one of those groups, Brian Gallagher of United Way Worldwide, has worked with the charity since 1981, engaging in its response to the 9/11 attacks, the Ebola threat, Hurricane Katrina and other disasters.

He said the COVID-19 outbreak has no parallel: "It's as if a natural disaster is hitting in slow motion just about every country on Earth."

Already, foundations and other major donors have contributed more than $1.9 billion to combat the outbreak, according to Candid, a New York-based nonprofit that tracks philanthropic giving.

The overall total, including donations from individuals, is surely far higher. Yet nonprofit leaders fear that the needs arising from the outbreak will outstrip even the possibility of massive future giving, let alone a possible drop in giving if a recession takes hold.

“Even if we get this virus under control, there will be several months of recovery for many people,” said Patricia McIlreavy, president of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. “Business will have closed, many families will have exhausted every reserve.”

Among the major charities bracing for future challenges is the Salvation Army, which says it annually receives about $2 billion in public support to serve about 23 million people living in poverty.

“We expect that service number to rise exponentially in the coming months," requiring "tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars to support our most vulnerable neighbors,” said Dale Bannon, the faith-based organization’s community relations and development secretary.”

He said the Salvation Army, like many other charities, has been forced to cancel numerous fundraising events because of the outbreak. It is now focusing on online fundraising operations.

Canceled blood drives have been devastating to the American Red Cross, which provides about 40% of the nation’s blood supply.

In a statement Wednesday, the organization estimated that there have been 86,000 fewer blood donations in recent weeks because of the wave of blood drive cancellations at workplaces, colleges and other venues as people were told to work or study from home and practice social distancing.

Patients being treated in hospitals for the coronavirus do not generally need blood transfusions, but the worsening blood shortage could affect surgery and cancer patients and victims of car accidents.

Anticipating that blood drive cancellations will continue, the Red Cross pleaded for potential donors to support drives that do take place or for donors to visit its blood-donation facilities.

The group outlined additional safety precautions being taken, including checking the temperature of staff and donors before they enter locations and requiring staff to change gloves each time they interact with a different donor.

For the Girl Scouts of the USA, calling for a halt to in-person cookie sales was momentous, given that the sales net roughly $800 million annually and are the core of the organization’s fundraising.

Girls who had been selling cookies at booths outside stores and other locations were asked to focus on online sales instead.

“The risk of interaction with large crowds is just too great,” said the Girl Scouts’ CEO, Sylvia Acevedo.

The Girl Scouts are asking their corporate supporters to consider making bulk cookie purchases. A spokeswoman, Valerie Geiss, said it would be several months before the financial outcome of the sales campaign is known.

Many local Girl Scout gatherings across the country have been suspended, though some units are meeting online. The Washington-based Girl Scouts of Nation’s Capital said it will be hosting more than 40 “virtual troop meetings” next week, potentially serving about 5,000 girls.

The Girl Scouts were among the 21 nonprofits appealing to congress on Thursday for the $60 billion infusion of support for charitable organizations.

Their appeal said America’s charities employ 12 million workers, many of them working on the front lines of the coronavirus response.

“The financial impact of the crisis has put the very survival of many essential service providers at risk,” said Steven C. Preston, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries International. “Charities are our society’s shock absorber when crisis hits.”

At the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, McIlreavy says there has been a surge of requests from would-be donors seeking guidance on how to give effectively in response to the pandemic.

‘‘Folks just want to know the money is going somewhere where it's actually going to help someone,” she said.

Her center urges donors to be wary of misinformation and do thorough research of charities before making gifts. It identifies key areas that could interest donors: urgent medical response needs, long-term medical research and assistance to vulnerable people in the U.S. or abroad.

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

For the United Way, a current priority is to strengthen and expand the 211 network that helps people who call the number to connect with providers of urgently needed social services.

Gallagher said 211 specialists have answered about 12 million requests annually, and he predicts there will be an additional 200,000 calls per day in coming weeks because of the outbreak.

Looking broadly, Gallagher believes there will be a surge in charitable giving for the next few months, and then a downturn as a weak economy takes a toll.

Big charities like United Way will get through it, Gallagher said. “The smaller nonprofits — houses of worship, soup kitchens — they will struggle."