In April 2020, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) launched Operation Stolen Promise (OSP) to protect the American people and businesses from the increasing and evolving threat posed by COVID-19-related fraud and other criminal activity. Leveraging a decade of experience battling dangerous and sub-standard counterfeit goods through the HSI-led National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (IPR Center), OSP combines HSI’s expertise in global trade, financial fraud, international operations, cyber-crime, and criminal analysis to investigate complex financial-fraud schemes.

Across the country and around the world, HSI special agents, analysts and investigators prevent illicit pharmaceuticals and medical supplies from being imported, identify and remove websites that defraud consumers, and stop other criminal activities associated with the virus. In short, OSP targets any activity that compromises legitimate trade or financial systems or endangers public health.

As part of OSP, HSI special agents have opened investigations across the country, seized millions of dollars in illicit proceeds; made multiple arrests; and shutdown thousands of fraudulent websites. HSI continues to work alongside U.S. Customs and Border Protection, seizing shipments of mislabeled, fraudulent, unauthorized or prohibited COVID-19 test kits, treatment kits, homeopathic remedies, and purported anti-viral products and personal protective equipment.

The operation is supported by four pillars: partnership, investigation, disruption and education. Industry experts from Pfizer, 3M, Citi, Alibaba, Amazon and Merck joined forces with the IPR Center’s criminal investigators in an unprecedented public-private partnership to combat fraud and other illegal activity surrounding COVID-19. In addition, Phillip Morris International, working in conjunction with numerous partners, led another coordinated effort to bring even greater awareness to this issue.

Scammers are attempting to profit from the pandemic through fraudulent fundraising for fake charities and online sales of counterfeit medicines and medical supplies. In the cyber realm, HSI is deploying robust capabilities and expertise to target suspicious activity and working closely with online platforms and domain name registrars to ensure it is reported and removed. This includes both open and dark web sites that enable the sale and distribution of illicit materials related to COVID-19, facilitate financial crime, and victimize consumers.

One of OSP’s main goals is educating the public on the various types of fraudulent activity targeting innocent victims, how to identify this type of crime and report it to authorities for further potential action. HSI is using its Strategic Targeted Outreach Program (S.T.O.P.) to equip the public with the tools to do just that, and to help HSI and its law enforcement partners combat COVID-19 fraud. The S.T.O.P. COVID-19 fraud campaign provides red flag indicators and asks people to report suspected fraud to COVID19FRAUD@DHS.GOV.

Suspicious signs for the public to watch for include websites or individuals selling products alleging they can prevent, treat, diagnose or cure COVID-19. While there are currently no COVID-19 test kits authorized for home use that produce in home results, the FDA has authorized several patient at-home sample collection kits that allow an individual to collect the sample in their home and then send the sample to a lab or medical facility for the actual test to be conducted.

Fraudulent COVID-19 treatments, some claiming to include the drug Remdesivir from Gilead Sciences, Inc., have also been found for sale online. As far as treating COVID-19, consumers should be aware that Remdesivir is only available at a hospital.

OSP educates the public to be wary of pharmaceutical product information written in a foreign language as well as products whose labels include misspellings – often a hallmark of counterfeit items. Consumers are also warned against buying prescription pharmaceuticals from third party marketplaces or social media platforms. Though it may be tempting and reassuring to believe otherwise, if local health care systems cannot get a product through legitimate channels, it will not be found online. Shopping outside the legitimate, approved medical community also means there are no safety or sanitations controls and no guarantee that what is purchased online is safe or effective.

One of the operation’s early successes came in May when a licensed New York City pharmacist was charged with violating the Defense Production Act by hoarding and price gouging scarce N95 masks; making false statements to law enforcement; committing healthcare fraud; and committing aggravated identity theft. When he was arrested, New York was the epicenter of the global pandemic and the man was charging upwards of $25 for a mask that should have cost an end user approximately $1.27, according to the manufacturer (ICE 2020).

Through mid-July the success of OSP is clear and the public benefit substantial. Since launching the campaign, HSI special agents have made 49 criminal arrests and seized nearly $7M in illicit funds. More than 1,100 investigative leads have been shared with foreign and domestic partners and HSI has made 871 COVID-19 related seizures, including prohibited COVID-19 test kits, prohibited pharmaceuticals and counterfeit masks, among other items.

In the midst of a relentless global pandemic, when there is less and less about our lives that is certain, the American people are counting on law enforcement to protect the vulnerable and ensure that every city and town is safe from individuals and organizations intent on inflicting even greater suffering. For more information about OSP, visit the ICE website at www.ice.gov/topics/operation-stolen-promise.