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Feds warn of coronavirus-related scams by phone, email, online

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BURLINGTON — The U.S. Attorney's Office in Vermont has appointed its criminal division chief to direct the prosecution of coronavirus-related scams that apparently have cropped up.

U.S. Attorney Christina Nolan announced Monday her office will prioritize the investigation and prosecution of crimes that seek to exploit the public, especially the vulnerable, amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Scammers are setting up websites, contacting people by phone or email, as well as posting disinformation on social media, according to a release from her office. It cited various types of scams, such as the sale of fake coronavirus test kits and fake vaccines, the impersonation of doctors in order to demand payment and the fraudulent collection of donations on behalf of people affected by COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

"While Vermont unites to respond to the spread of COVID-19, we are aware that some may try to profit by capitalizing on perceived vulnerabilities," Nolan was quoted as saying. "We will respond with criminal accountability to those who would sell fake cures online, send phishing emails from entities posing as the World Health Organization or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or engage in other types of criminal conduct related to COVID-19."

Nolan said she has appointed Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugenia Cowles, criminal division chief, as her office's fraud coordinator. In this role, Cowles will act as legal counsel for the federal judicial district of Vermont on matters relating to the coronavirus, coordinate investigations and direct the prosecution of coronavirus-related crimes.

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The U.S. Attorney's Office said people who believe they've been victimized, or are being targeted, by a coronavirus-related fraud scheme should contact the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center at IC3.gov. And those who suspect they've come across such a scam should get in touch with the National Center for Disaster Fraud at 866-720-5721 or disaster@leo.gov.

The U.S. Attorney's Office will be notified of tips that are submitted, according to the release. It also advised members of the public to take precautionary measures, such as verifying the identity of any person or group that contacts them regarding COVID-19. It's also important to double-check the validity of websites or email addresses that offer coronavirus-related products or services; scammers often use addresses that imitate those of real entities, like cdc.com or cdc.org instead of cdc.gov.

The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to confirm or deny when asked if any reported scams or victims had ties to southwestern Vermont or Bennington County.

As of Wednesday, the Vermont State Police, Bennington County Sheriff's Office and Bennington Police Department had not received reports of coronavirus-related scams.

Contact Tiffany Tan at ttan@benningtonbanner.com, @tiffgtan on Twitter or 802-447-7567 ext. 122.


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