Feds Work to Snag Fake COVID-19 Test Kits, Bogus Virus Products

There are renewed warnings of coronavirus fraud, and news of a federal law enforcement sweep that's shutting down some cons.

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Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, NBC Bay Area has reported numerous scams and rip-offs designed to take advantage of the pandemic.

At the same time, various federal law enforcement agencies have worked together quietly in the background, targeting those same crooks and con artists.

It's called Operation Stolen Promise. Rafael Nunez, Inspector in Charge at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in San Francisco, says the U.S. Postal Inspection Service is one of many agencies that is helping to hunt down scammers.

"The Department of Justice is ready to prosecute these types of cases," Nunez told NBC Bay Area. "This is our number one priority right now, during this time."

Agents involved in Operation Stolen Promise tell us they've already executed 14 search warrants, taken $3.2 million in "illicit proceeds," arrested nine people, and made 419 coronavirus-related property seizures.

Shutting Out Illegal Shipments

At San Francisco International Airport, authorities confiscated a shipment from Japan labelled "Virus Shut Out." Investigators say its safety hasn't been evaluated and it isn't registered with the U.S. government. The manufacturer of Virus Shut Out did not respond to an inquiy from NBC Bay Area.

Pictured: packaging of "Virus Shut Out," a chemical product intercepted in a shipment at San Francisco International Airport. (Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

At the U.S. - Mexico border, inspectors in Nogales, Arizona found 900 bottles of counterfeit Clorox, filled with bleach diluted so much that agents said it would be "ineffective."

Pictured: bottles of counterfeit Clorox bleach seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the Mexico border. (Credit: U.S. Department of Homeland Security / Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

Warning: Fake Test Kits for Sale

At airports in Los Angeles and Chicago, agents impounded what they say are fake COVID-19 test kits, imported from the United Kingdom.

Fake Test Kits
U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Fake COVID-19 test kits seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Los Angeles International Airport. (Credit: U.S. CBP)

Tatum King, Special Agent in Charge with the Department of Homeland Security, says phony virus tests pose a much bigger threat than just a financial loss for purchasers.

"We don’t know the quality control," King said. "We don’t know if these items could inadvertently harm someone, or they could give someone a false sense of security. Maybe the test says they’re negative, but they actually have the virus."

On Thursday, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission issued a new warning about fake test kits and testing sites.

"The fake sites can look real, with legitimate-looking signs, tents, hazmat suits, and realistic-looking tests," the FTC said in a news release. "They aren’t following sanitation protocols, so they can spread the virus. They’re taking people’s personal information, including Social Security numbers, credit card information, and other health information – all of which can be used for identity theft and to run up your credit card bill."

The FTC said the only way patients can get an authentic COVID-19 test is through a doctor or hospital.

How 'Sinkholes' Can Thwart Scammers

Shady sellers worldwide are using the anonymity of the internet to broker sleazy virus deals. There's an explosion of website addresses that contain phrases like "coronavirus" and "COVID19". Agents warn many of these websites are designed to trick visitors into buying everything from bogus COVID-19 cures to sham offers to get your federal stimulus check earlier -- for a fee.

"Your check is coming to you," Nunez said. "It’s coming to you safely and securely through the U.S. Mail," if you didn't get a direct deposit, he added.

Since so much virus fraud is unfolding online, agents say they've "sinkholed" about 11,000 internet domains. "Sinkholing" is when the good guys steer web traffic away from malicious websites known to be bad guys' traps.

"We’re on to you," King said. "We know this is your traditional fraud with a COVID twist."

How You Can Help

Agents say Operation Stolen Promise is ongoing, and they ask for the public's help -- if you see something suspicious, say something.

"Justice begins with the public," Nunez said. He asked anyone with information about suspicious coronavirus-related shipments to notify the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

Agents say they've followed more than 370 leads. If you have information about coronavirus-related fraud or scams, you can let them know by visiting this website, or emailing covid19fraud@dhs.gov. You can also share this flyer with friends and loved ones, providing basic tips to avoid and report fraud.

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