The past two months saw a surge in federal prosecutions of “COVID-19 fraud” and other COVID-19-related charges. The Department of Justice’s aggressive posture and increasing number of prosecutions signals that federal law enforcement agencies are scrutinizing businesses and individuals who sell, market, or otherwise distribute products that claim to treat or prevent the spread of COVID-19. The positions taken by the federal government in these “COVID-19 fraud” cases indicate the government is over-charging some of these cases to send a strong message of deterrence to businesses and individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On June 11, 2020, federal prosecutors in Atlanta Georgia announced federal fraud and misbranding charges against a Marietta man accused of selling misbranded pesticidal devices as an air purifying device capable of eliminating COVID-19. While the feds had the option of charging the individual under various misbranding and counterfeit laws, prosecutors opted to charge him with the more serious mail fraud charge as well, which carries a statutory maximum sentence of up to 20 years. The prosecution was announced as part of the Georgia COVID-19 Fraud Task Force.
Last month, a woman in Fayetteville pleaded guilty to violating the FIFRA (the federal law regulating pesticides) after the feds charged her with selling an unregistered pesticide labeled as “Virus Shut Out.” The product was marketed as a virus-killer, but it does not appear that the marketing explicitly mentioned COVID-19. Regardless, the woman now faces up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Not all of the federal government’s efforts have been limited to pesticides and pesticidal regulations, however. In May, an Atlanta man was charged by federal prosecutors with federal fraud charges for “defrauding” his employer by presenting a fake doctor’s note stating he had tested positive for COVID-19. In response to receiving the notice, the employer temporarily closed his business and sanitized the workplace. Under normal circumstances, it is hard to imagine a federal prosecution of an employee for lying about being sick in order to call out of work. During a pandemic, and given the federal government’s aggressive stance on alleged crimes ostensibly related to COVID-19, an employee calling out sick with coronavirus can face federal fraud charges.