Your COVID-19 vaccine questions, answered: What are the COVID vaccine side effects? If you get the vaccine, are you contagious? From “States of America.”
WASHINGTON – For the past year, federal law enforcement agencies have received tens of thousands of complaints of fraud tied to the coronavirus pandemic. More than 100 cases have been prosecuted, and authorities are expecting this number to rise as states continue to rollout vaccines.
“We’ve been concerned about fraud schemes regarding the vaccine as soon as the vaccine went from an idea to reality … The one thing that we’ve learned throughout this pandemic is that when there’s money to be made, criminals will figure out how to do it,” said FBI Financial Crimes Section Chief Steven Merrill.
Merrill said he can’t say how many complaints the FBI has received regarding vaccine-related fraud, or how many have been elevated to criminal investigations. But he said officials have seen instances involving websites advertising fake vaccines.
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At least one fraud investigation has been made public in New York.
The state’s attorney general’s office is investigating whether a healthcare provider in Orange County, New York misrepresented itself to state officials to obtained vaccine doses and distributed them to members of the public who aren’t on the state’s priority list. Parcare Community Health Network said in a statement that it is cooperating with investigators.
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In late December, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that healthcare providers who fraudulently obtain vaccines could face up to $1 million in fines and loss of state license. Cuomo also said this week that he plans to propose a bill that would impose criminal penalties to medical providers and other entities who sell or give vaccines to those who aren’t yet eligible.
Federal prosecutors in Maryland also recently seized websites claiming to be biotechnology companies that are developing treatments for COVID-19. Authorities said the fake websites used logos of real companies to dupe victims into providing personal information.
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Merrill said authorities are on the lookout for medical providers asking patients to undergo unnecessary tests and procedures, bad actors seeking personal information from unsuspecting victims in order to fraudulently bill Medicare, fraudsters asking people to pay out of pocket to obtain vaccines, and marketing representatives offering wholesale shipments of vaccines in exchange for fees.
“We want to make sure that the public understands that the information they should be getting about the vaccine should not be coming from an advertisement or unsolicited information; it should be coming from an official government website,” Merrill said.
Most vulnerable to scams are elderly people who may not be computer savvy and are more likely to have greater concerns about their health and ability to get vaccinated, Merrill said.
“Everybody is worried about putting this pandemic behind us and, as such, the emotion and the nervous energy that people have about this have caused many persons throughout the world to act more on emotion than logic … I want to make sure that it’s clear to the public to please consult with medical professionals before putting what you believe to be a vaccine or any other medicine in your body,” Merrill said.
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The United States has more than 20.8 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 353,500 deaths, according to John Hopkins University data. So far, less than 4.6 million people have received a first dose of the vaccine even though more than 15.4 million have been distributed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Trade Commission and other agencies have recently sent alerts warning of vaccine-related fraud.
The Justice Department has made prosecuting coronavirus-related frauds among its top priorities, charging individuals and companies for submitting fraudulent applications to obtain millions of dollars in government aids and loans for small businesses, hoarding and gouging prices of personal protective equipment, wire fraud and money laundering.
Last month, a Cameroon national was accused of selling nonexistent puppies and other animals online as companions for socially isolated victims. Authorities said Fodje Bobga and his co-conspirators charged hundreds of dollars a puppy and claimed the pets would be shipped to victims’ homes. They later claimed transportation had been delayed and the unsuspecting purchasers needed to pay extra fees.
Contributing: Associated Press
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