ICE launches Operation Stolen Promise 2.0 to combat COVID-19 vaccine fraud

Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it is preparing for a surge in anticipated fraud by criminal networks related to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) has launched Operation Stolen Promise 2.0, in an effort to identify and prevent the production, sale and distribution of unapproved or unauthorized COVID-19 products and drugs.

ICE HSI said they have been working with leading pharmaceutical companies that are currently developing vaccines and treatments.

“We are committed to protecting the American public and global supply chain from fraud related to COVID vaccines and treatments. We will continue to use our broad legal authorities and longstanding relationships with domestic and international law enforcement agencies and private sector partners to address this emerging public health threat, and will sustain our efforts to disrupt and dismantle criminal networks seeking to profit from the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Derek Benner, Executive Associate Director for HSI. “ICE HSI has been at the forefront of the government’s investigative response to COVID-19-related crime since the onset of the pandemic and will remain a leader in the fight to prevent vaccine fraud and to protect the health and safety of Americans.”

Based on trends and intelligence, special agents anticipate that criminal organizations will continue to adapt and capitalize on public demand for access to vaccines and treatments as they are developed and approved.

With that, the agency expects a surge in illicit attempts to introduce counterfeit versions of approved vaccines into U.S. and global marketplaces.

Despite widespread illness and death caused by COVID-19, many individuals and criminal networks are continuing to exploit the pandemic for illegal financial gains, using fraudulent schemes to source, produce, export or sell fake vaccines and related products, according to investigators.

Micah McCombs, assistant special agent in charge with Homeland Security Investigations, Tampa, said, “We are in the phase where we believe we will see a large uptick in the types and scale of vaccine fraud … you should never have to pay a large exorbitant fee to try to get access to vaccine.”

“We have shut down hundreds of websites operating overseas,” McCombs explained. “One network operating out of southeast Asia was bilking people all throughout Florida for hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

ICE HSI will they will disrupt and dismantle fraud schemes, remove illicit websites and other online marketplaces and seize counterfeit or illicit vaccines and treatments. As part of this effort, the agency is also highlighting ways that the public can protect itself against fraud involving counterfeit vaccines and treatments. ICE encourages the public to visit ice.gov for additional information.

“Many people, both in government and in industry, are working hard to ensure that the vaccines are properly developed, and once approved, properly and efficiently distributed through a secure supply chain,” said Steve Francis, director of ICE HSI’s Intellectual Property Rights Center. “From production to distribution, these vaccines will require a great level of care and technology along the way in order to ensure they will be effective when they reach the patient. The public should not accept anything from an unapproved source, as an unapproved source can never guarantee that the vaccine is legitimate or that it has been properly stored and transported,” he said.

ICE launched Operation Stolen Promise in April 2020 to protect the Homeland from the increasing and evolving threat posed by COVID-19-related fraud and criminal activity.

McCombs added, “They’ve certainly been an issue in Southwest Florida and I can say we are certainly investigating a variety of scams that occurred there.”

As of November 25, 2020, the agency has seized more than $26 million in illicit proceeds; made 170 arrests; executed 148 search warrants, and analyzed more than 69,000 COVID-19 domain names. Working with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, more than 1,600 shipments of mislabelled, fraudulent, unauthorized or prohibited COVID-19 test kits and other related items have been seized.

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Reporter:Rich Kolko
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