INTERPOL warns of financial fraud linked to COVID-19

INTERPOL is encouraging the public to exercise caution when buying medical supplies online during the current health crisis, with criminals capitalizing on the situation to run a range of financial scams.


Criminals taking advantage of coronavirus anxiety to defraud victims online

INTERPOL is encouraging the public to exercise caution when buying medical supplies online during the current health crisis, with criminals capitalizing on the situation to run a range of financial scams.

With surgical masks and other medical supplies in high demand yet difficult to find in retail stores as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, fake shops, websites, social media accounts and email addresses claiming to sell these items have sprung up online.

But instead of receiving the promised masks and supplies, unsuspecting victims have seen their money disappear into the hands of the criminals involved.

This is one of several types of financial fraud schemes connected to the ongoing global health crisis which have been reported to INTERPOL by authorities in its member countries.

COVID-19 fraud schemes

Scams linked to the virus include:

  • Telephone fraud – criminals call victims pretending to be clinic or hospital officials, who claim that a relative of the victim has fallen sick with the virus and request payments for medical treatment;
  • Phishing – emails claiming to be from national or global health authorities, with the aim of tricking victims to provide personal credentials or payment details, or to open an attachment containing malware.

In many cases, the fraudsters impersonate legitimate companies, using similar names, websites and email addresses in their attempt to trick unsuspecting members of the public, even reaching out proactively via emails and messages on social media platforms.

“Criminals are exploiting the fear and uncertainty created by COVID-19 to prey on innocent citizens who are only looking to protect their health and that of their loved ones,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock.

“Anyone who is thinking of buying medical supplies online should take a moment and verify that you are in fact dealing with a legitimate, reputable company, otherwise your money could be lost to unscrupulous criminals,” concluded the INTERPOL Chief.

Blocking and recovering fraudulent payments

Monetary loses reported to INTERPOL have been as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single case, and these crimes are crossing international borders.

INTERPOL’s Financial Crimes Unit is receiving information from member countries on a near-daily basis regarding fraud cases and requests to assist with stopping fraudulent payments. Targeted victims have primarily been located in Asia, but the criminals have used bank accounts located in other regions such as Europe, to appear as legitimate accounts linked to the company which is being impersonated.

In one case, a victim in Asia made payments to several bank accounts unknowingly controlled by criminals in multiple European countries. With INTERPOL’s assistance, national authorities were able to block some of the payments, but others were quickly transferred by the criminals to second and even third bank accounts before they could be traced and blocked.

To date, INTERPOL has assisted with some 30 COVID-19 related fraud scam cases with links to Asia and Europe, leading to the blocking of 18 bank accounts and freezing of more than USD 730,000 in suspected fraudulent transactions.

INTERPOL has also issued a Purple Notice alerting police in all its 194 member countries to this new type of fraud.

Warning signs

If you are looking to buy medical supplies online, or receive emails or links offering medical support, be alert to the signs of a potential scam to protect yourself and your money.

  • Independently verify the company/individual offering the items before making any purchases;
  • Be aware of bogus websites – criminals will often use a web address which looks almost identical to the legitimate one, e.g. ‘abc.org’ instead of ‘abc.com’;
  • Check online reviews of a company before making a purchase – for example, have there been complaints of other customers not receiving the promised items?;
  • Be wary if asked to make a payment to a bank account located in a different country than where the company is located;
  • If you believe you have been the victim of fraud, alert your bank immediately so the payment can be stopped.
  • Do not click on links or open attachments which you were not expecting to receive, or come from an unknown sender;
  • Be wary of unsolicited emails offering medical equipment or requesting your personal information for medical checks – legitimate health authorities do not normally contact the general public in this manner.

Interpol.int (March, 2020) INTERPOL warns of financial fraud linked to COVID-19

Five Sentenced in South Florida to Prison Terms for Their Roles in Tricare and Medicare Fraud Scheme

U.S. District Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga has sentenced five defendants, including a doctor, to federal prison terms for their roles in a scheme that defrauded Tricare and Medicare out of more than $9.6 million.


U.S. District Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga has sentenced five defendants, including a doctor, to federal prison terms for their roles in a scheme that defrauded Tricare and Medicare out of more than $9.6 million. The defendants tricked beneficiaries into having the federal health care programs pay for medically unnecessary compounded prescription medicines and cancer genetic tests. Their sentences are as follows:

  • Dr. Mangala Ramamurthy, 64, of Texas was sentenced to 34 months for her role in the scheme: prescribing compounded pain creams and referring Genetic Cancer tests that were medically unnecessary. Dr.  Ramamurthy earlier pled guilty to conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and conspiracy to receive healthcare kickbacks.
     
  • John Scholtes, 56 of Boca Raton, Florida, was sentenced to 97 months for his role in the scheme. Scholtes earlier pled guilty to conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud, conspiracy to defraud the U.S., and conspiracy to receive healthcare kickbacks.
     
  • Anthony Mauzy, 43, of California, was sentenced to 49 months for his role in the scheme. Mauzy earlier pled guilty to conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud.
     
  • Thomas Sahs, 41, of California, was sentenced to 45 months for his role in the scheme. Sahs earlier pled guilty to conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud.
     
  • Rajesh Mahbubani, 46, of Texas, was sentenced to 49 months for his role in the scheme. Mahbubani earlier pled guilty to conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud.

On January 31, 2020, a sixth co-conspirator, Senthil Kumar Ramamurthy, 38, of Texas, was sentenced to 121 months in federal prison for his role in the scheme. S.K. Ramamurthy earlier pled guilty to conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud, conspiracy to defraud the US, and conspiracy to receive healthcare kickbacks. S.K. Ramamurthy is the son of Dr. Ramamurthy. 

Ariana Fajardo Orshan, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Cynthia Bruce, Special Agent in Charge, Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS), Southeast Field Office, and SAC Omar Pérez Aybar, Special Agent in Charge for Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG) made the announcement. 

Tricare is the health care program for the U.S. military that pays the health care costs of active and retired military personnel and their families, including the costs of medically necessary prescription medications. Medicare is a federally-funded program that provides free or below-cost health care benefits to certain individuals, primarily the blind, elderly, and disabled.

According to court records, the co-conspirators targeted Tricare for about 10 months, starting in 2014. After making their way onto U.S. military bases, co-conspirators convinced Tricare beneficiaries to sign-up for compounded prescription medications that the beneficiaries did not need. To encourage sign-up, co-conspirators falsely told the beneficiaries that the pharmacies would custom-design their medications or that the medications were free. In fact, the medications were not custom-designed and the patients had co-payments. Compounding pharmacies paid the co-conspirators millions of dollars in kickbacks in exchange for sending the pharmacies expensive prescription orders. 

In mid-2015, Tricare scaled back its reimbursements for compounded medications. The defendants turned to Medicare. They paid doctors to refer Medicare beneficiaries to a lab in Georgia for cancer genetic screening testing, even though the doctors had never examined the beneficiaries. As with the compounded medications, the cancer genetic screening tests were not medically necessary.

The owner of the Georgia lab, Minal Patel, 40, was indicted in the Southern District of Florida in September 2019. An indictment is an accusation and a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. 

To date, fraudulent compounding pharmacy schemes have caused estimated losses to Tricare in excess of $2 billion. Fraudulent genetic testing lab schemes have caused estimated losses to Medicare of approximately $2.1 billion.   

U.S. Attorney Fajardo-Orshan commended the investigative efforts of DCIS and HHS-OIG.  Assistant United States Attorneys Kevin J. Larsen, Anna Maria Martinez, and John C. Shipley prosecuted the case. Assistant United States Attorney Daren Grove is handling the asset forfeiture matters. 

Related court documents and information may be found on the website of the District Court for the Southern District of Florida at www.flsd.uscourts.gov or at http://pacer.flsd.uscourts.gov.

Justice.gov (February, 2020) Five Defendants Sentenced in South Florida to Prison Terms for Their Roles in Tricare and Medicare Fraud Scheme

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Chicago Woman Found Guilty for Role in $7 Million Scheme to Defraud Medicare

A federal jury found a Chicago woman guilty on Friday for her role in a scheme to defraud Medicare of approximately $7 million between 2011 and 2017.


A federal jury found a Chicago woman guilty on Friday for her role in a scheme to defraud Medicare of approximately $7 million between 2011 and 2017.

After a four-day trial, Angelita Newton, 42, was found guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and wire fraud.   Sentencing has been scheduled for Oct. 13, 2020 before U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall of the Northern District of Illinois, who presided over the trial. 

According to evidence presented at trial, from approximately 2011 to 2017, Newton worked at Care Specialists, a home health company based in Chicago, Illinois, and owned by Ferdinand Echavia, 46, and Ma Luisa Echavia, 44, both of Chicago.  Newton was the Echavias’ employee and personal assistant.  In that role, Newton conspired with the Echavias and others to submit claims to Medicare for unnecessary home health services for unqualified patients or for visits that did not happen as billed, the evidence showed. 

Newton created and completed visit notes and other documents purporting to reflect nursing services purportedly rendered by Ferdinand Echavia with the knowledge that he was not actually providing the services.  Newton was aware that Ferdinand Echavia was making cash payments to patients, which Newton knew to be illegal, the evidence showed.

The evidence at trial showed that between 2011 and 2017, Medicare paid Care Specialists approximately $7 million for home health care services. 

Three other defendants have been charged in connection with the fraud at Care Specialists.  Ferdinand Echavia pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud and wire fraud on Jan. 28, 2020, and is awaiting sentencing.  Ma Luisa Echavia pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud and wire fraud on Jan. 29, 2020, and is awaiting sentencing.  A former nurse at Care Specialists, Reginald Onate, 31, of Aurora, Illinois, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud, and is awaiting sentencing. 

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This case was investigated by the FBI and HHS-OIG.  Trial Attorneys Leslie S. Garthwaite and Patrick Mott of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section are prosecuting the case.  Former Trial Attorney Jessica Collins of the Fraud Section previously handled the prosecution.   

Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney John R. Lausch Jr. of the Northern District of Illinois, Special Agent in Charge Emmerson Buie Jr. of the FBI’s Chicago Field Office and Special Agent in Charge Lamont Pugh III of the United States Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General’s (HHS-OIG) Chicago Division Office made the announcement.

The Fraud Section leads the Medicare Fraud Strike Force.  Since its inception in March 2007, the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, which maintains 15 strike forces operating in 24 districts, has charged more than 4,200 defendants who have collectively billed the Medicare program for nearly $19 billion.  In addition, the HHS Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, working in conjunction with the HHS-OIG, are taking steps to increase accountability and decrease the presence of fraudulent providers.

Justice.gov (February, 2020) Chicago Woman Found Guilty for Role in $7 Million Scheme to Defraud Medicare

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Chinese Military Personnel Charged with Computer Fraud, Economic Espionage and Wire Fraud for Hacking into Credit Reporting Agency Equifax

A federal grand jury in Atlanta returned an indictment last week charging four members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with hacking into the computer systems of the credit reporting agency Equifax and stealing Americans’ personal data and Equifax’s valuable trade secrets.


Indictment Alleges Four Members of China’s People’s Liberation Army Engaged in a Three-Month Long Campaign to Steal Sensitive Personal Information of Nearly 150 Million Americans

A federal grand jury in Atlanta returned an indictment last week charging four members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with hacking into the computer systems of the credit reporting agency Equifax and stealing Americans’ personal data and Equifax’s valuable trade secrets.

The nine-count indictment alleges that Wu Zhiyong (吴志勇), Wang Qian (王乾), Xu Ke (许可) and Liu Lei (刘磊) were members of the PLA’s 54th Research Institute, a component of the Chinese military.  They allegedly conspired with each other to hack into Equifax’s computer networks, maintain unauthorized access to those computers, and steal sensitive, personally identifiable information of approximately 145 million American victims.

“This was a deliberate and sweeping intrusion into the private information of the American people,” said Attorney General William P. Barr, who made the announcement. “Today, we hold PLA hackers accountable for their criminal actions, and we remind the Chinese government that we have the capability to remove the Internet’s cloak of anonymity and find the hackers that nation repeatedly deploys against us. Unfortunately, the Equifax hack fits a disturbing and unacceptable pattern of state-sponsored computer intrusions and thefts by China and its citizens that have targeted personally identifiable information, trade secrets, and other confidential information.”

According to the indictment, the defendants exploited a vulnerability in the Apache Struts Web Framework software used by Equifax’s online dispute portal.  

They used this access to conduct reconnaissance of Equifax’s online dispute portal and to obtain login credentials that could be used to further navigate Equifax’s network.  

The defendants spent several weeks running queries to identify Equifax’s database structure and searching for sensitive, personally identifiable information within Equifax’s system.  Once they accessed files of interest, the conspirators then stored the stolen information in temporary output files, compressed and divided the files, and ultimately were able to download and exfiltrate the data from Equifax’s network to computers outside the United States. In total, the attackers ran approximately 9,000 queries on Equifax’s system, obtaining names, birth dates and social security numbers for nearly half of all American citizens.

The indictment also charges the defendants with stealing trade secret information, namely Equifax’s data compilations and database designs.  “In short, this was an organized and remarkably brazen criminal heist of sensitive information of nearly half of all Americans, as well as the hard work and intellectual property of an American company, by a unit of the Chinese military,” said Barr.

The defendants took steps to evade detection throughout the intrusion, as alleged in the indictment.  They routed traffic through approximately 34 servers located in nearly 20 countries to obfuscate their true location, used encrypted communication channels within Equifax’s network to blend in with normal network activity, and deleted compressed files and wiped log files on a daily basis in an effort to eliminate records of their activity.

“Today’s announcement of these indictments further highlights our commitment to imposing consequences on cybercriminals no matter who they are, where they are, or what country’s uniform they wear,” said FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich.  “The size and scope of this investigation — affecting nearly half of the U.S. population, demonstrates the importance of the FBI’s mission and our enduring partnerships with the Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.  This is not the end of our investigation; to all who seek to disrupt the safety, security and confidence of the global citizenry in this digitally connected world, this is a day of reckoning.”

The defendants are charged with three counts of conspiracy to commit computer fraud, conspiracy to commit economic espionage, and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.  The defendants are also charged with two counts of unauthorized access and intentional damage to a protected computer, one count of economic espionage, and three counts of wire fraud. 

The investigation was conducted jointly by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia, the Criminal and National Security Divisions of the Department of Justice, and the FBI’s Atlanta Field Office.  The FBI’s Cyber Division also provided support.  Equifax cooperated fully and provided valuable assistance in the investigation.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Nathan Kitchens, Samir Kaushal, and Thomas Krepp of the Northern District of Georgia; Senior Counsel Benjamin Fitzpatrick of the Criminal Division’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section; and Trial Attorney Scott McCulloch of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section are prosecuting this case.  Attorneys with the Office of International Affairs provided critical assistance in obtaining evidence from overseas.  

The details contained in the charging document are allegations.  The defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

Justice.gov (February, 2020) Chinese Military Personnel Charged with Computer Fraud, Economic Espionage and Wire Fraud for Hacking into Credit Reporting Agency Equifax

Iranian National Charged with Bank Fraud and Lying to Federal Agents in Connection with a Scheme to Use the U.S. Financial System to Send More Than $115 Million to Iranian Individuals and Entities

Bahram Karimi was charged with conspiring to commit bank fraud, bank fraud, and making false statements in connection with his involvement in a joint project initiated by the Governments of Iran and Venezuela


The Department of Justice announced that Bahram Karimi was charged with conspiring to commit bank fraud, bank fraud, and making false statements in connection with his involvement in a joint project initiated by the Governments of Iran and Venezuela in which more than $115 million was illegally funneled through the U.S. financial system for the benefit of various Iranian individuals and entities. 

The case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Alison J. Nathan. 

“Karimi allegedly conspired in an infrastructure project initiated by the Governments of Iran and Venezuela,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers. “He then lied to banks about Iranian involvement and took advantage of the U.S. financial system to benefit Iranian parties.  The Department of Justice will continue to prosecute those who misuse our financial system in violation of U.S. sanctions.”

“As alleged, Bahram Karimi knowingly and willfully facilitated the circumventing of sanctions against Iran, and then lied about it to FBI agents,” said U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman for the Southern District of New York. “Karimi allegedly enabled the concealed transfer through U.S. banks of more than $100 million from a Venezuelan state-owned company to an Iranian construction firm, and when questioned, told the agents he didn’t know that was prohibited by the sanctions.”

“At the end of the day, these charges reflect the use of our financial system to generate U.S. dollars for Iranians and Iranian entities.  That’s why our government has robust sanctions in place against Iran and Iranian entities who seek to use the U.S. banking system for their own benefit,” said Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney, Jr of the New York Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

As alleged in the Superseding Indictment and statements made in court filings and proceedings:

In August 2004, the Governments of Iran and Venezuela entered into a Cooperation Framework Agreement, whereby they agreed to cooperate in certain areas of common interest.  The following year, both governments supplemented the Cooperation Framework Agreement by entering into a Memorandum of Understanding regarding an infrastructure project in Venezuela (the “Project”), which was to involve the construction of thousands of housing units in Venezuela. 

The Project was led by Stratus Group, an Iranian conglomerate with international business operations in the construction, banking, and oil industries.  In December 2006, Stratus Group incorporated a company in Tehran, which was then known as the Iranian International Housing Corporation (IIHC). 

IIHC was responsible for construction for the Project. 

Thereafter, IIHC entered into a contract with a subsidiary of a Venezuelan state-owned energy company (the VE Company), which called for IIHC to build approximately 7,000 housing units in Venezuela in exchange for approximately $475,734,000.  Stratus Group created the Venezuela Project Executive Committee to oversee the execution of the Project.  Karimi was a member of the committee and was responsible for managing the Project in Venezuela.

In connection with his role on the Project, Karimi worked with others to defraud U.S. banks by concealing the role of Iranian parties in U.S. dollar payments sent through the U.S. banking system.  Specifically, between April 2011 and November 2013, the VE Company made approximately 15 payments to IIHC through two front companies, which were created to conceal the Iranian nexus to the payments, in violation of U.S. economic sanctions.  These 15 payments totaled approximately $115 million. 

In January 2020, Karimi was interviewed by, among other people, two FBI agents.  During that interview, Karimi falsely stated that, during the course of the Project, he believed that international sanctions against Iran did not apply to Iranian companies or persons.

Karimi, 53, of Canada, is charged with (1) conspiring to commit bank fraud, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison; (2) bank fraud, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison; and (3) making false statements, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.  The maximum potential sentences in this case are prescribed by Congress and are provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendant will be determined by the judge.

Mr. Demers and Mr. Berman praised the outstanding investigative efforts of the New York County District Attorney’s Office and the FBI.  Mr. Berman also thanked the New York County District Attorney’s Office for their ongoing assistance in this investigation.

The prosecution of this case is being handled by the Office’s Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit.  Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jane Kim, Michael Krouse, and Stephanie Lake, and Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Garrett Lynch, Deputy Chief of the Major Economic Crimes Bureau at the New York County District Attorney’s Office, are in charge of the prosecution, with assistance from Trial Attorney Scott Claffee of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section.

The charges contained in the Superseding Indictment are merely allegations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

Justice.gov (Jan. 31, 2020).  Iranian National Charged with Bank Fraud and Lying to Federal Agents

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