At the beginning of April 2020, the U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) developed a systematic plan called Operation Stolen Promise (OSP). The objective is to hunt down and disrupt COVID-19 illegal activities while strengthening global supply-chain security.
The OSP has successfully made 419 COVID-19-related confiscations: unauthorized COVID-19 test and treatment kits, counterfeit, mislabeled, and potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals, prohibited masks, and medical devices. Many of these COVID-19 products were sold online on illegal darknet marketplaces that are being taken down by the HSI. In addition, many fraudulent fundraisers, financial schemes, and other similar scams have also been disrupted.
Only this past month, the HSI has made 9 arrests, has interrupted 85 illegal activities, and has seized more than $3.2 million in illicit proceeds.
One of the first investigations began on April 1st, in Los Angeles, California. A British man was charged with smuggling into the U.S. mislabeled pharmaceuticals that were supposed to treat COVID-19. The investigation was lead by Los Angeles HSI, in partnership with the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations, with assistance from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, alongside the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
Furthermore, in mid-April 2020, a man from Georgia was arrested for illicitly importing and distributing online an unauthorized pesticide. He was claiming that it was a valid product against COVID-19.
Another investigation was directed by Philadelphia HSI in collaboration with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for District of Columbia. After obtaining a warrant on April 17th, authorizing the disruption of coronaprevention.org. The owner of the website put the domain up for sale.
He was asking for bitcoins on a hacking forum, advertising it as a great way to sell “high markup in demand products.” In a conversation with an HSI undercover agent, the seller stated that it was “genius” to sell “fake testing kits” on the alleged website, and that he would’ve done it himself had he not been financially unable to buy in bulk from a Chinese e-commerce site, Alibaba.
He continued the conversation with the undercover agent by suggesting ways to avoid the U.S. authorities to prevent them from closing the website. One of the proposed methods involved using a proxy or VPN connection.
The warrant charges are allegations, and the case is still in course. Civil forfeiture proceedings are underway, expecting ownership claims or identification.
As part of OSP, the Homeland Security Investigations has launched a public campaign to inform citizens of fraudulent and criminal COVID-19 activities. The population is encouraged to pay attention to red flags and report any suspicious COVID-19-related activities to COVID19FRAUD@DHS.GOV.