By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is launching a task force to address market manipulation, hoarding and price gouging related to the coronavirus pandemic, following an order by President Donald Trump to crack down on such crimes.
At the same time, federal law enforcement agencies across the country are prioritizing investigations into an array of coronavirus-related crimes following reports they have surged.
Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said among the reported crimes were the targeting of federally-insured Medicare patients with fake tests or unnecessary antiretroviral prescriptions.
“You should be on the lookout for these sorts of schemes,” Rosen wrote in the memo, which was directed to the heads of all the Justice Department’s law enforcement components and all U.S. Attorneys offices.
Other reported crimes included threats of violence to local mayors and robberies of patients and doctors leaving hospitals.
In a separate memo, Attorney General William Barr said the new task force on hoarding and price gouging will be led by Craig Carpenito, the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey.
“We must do the best we can to protect Americans’ rights and safety in this novel and troubling time,” Barr wrote.
Barr earlier this month directed federal prosecutors to prioritize crimes related to the coronavirus outbreak. That initiative required each U.S. Attorney’s office to appoint a designated prosecutor to oversee coronavirus fraud cases.
The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 660 people in the United States and infected more than 50,000, with some officials warning the crisis could last for months.
Law enforcement officials who specialize in healthcare and drug-related crimes who spoke with Reuters this week said they anticipated rising crime as fraudsters seek to capitalize on people’s fears about the outbreak.
Marking its first coronavirus case, the Justice Department revealed on Sunday it had closed down a website selling non-existent vaccines.
Barr has already launched investigations into the hoarding and price gouging of critical medical supplies, part of actions tied to an executive order by President Donald Trump that authorizes the criminal prosecution of anyone whose purchases exceed reasonable limits.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; editing by Jane Wardell)