March 20, 2020 / 4:54 PM / 9 days ago

Federal prosecutor tapped to handle coronavirus fraud schemes in Chicago

March 20 (Reuters) - The top federal prosecutor in Chicago said on Friday he had designated a prosecutor in his office who will be tasked with rooting out fraud schemes in the region stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tyler Murray, the head of the financial crimes section in the Chicago area, will now serve as a “COVID-19 Fraud Coordinator,” said John Lausch, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.

“My office will vigilantly guard the public from fraudsters who try to take advantage of a vulnerable time for our nation,” Lausch said in a statement.

“A national crisis is by no means a safe harbor for criminal activity.”

The appointment of a prosecutor to handle coronavirus-related crimes comes after U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Monday directed federal prosecutors across the country to prioritize pursuing fraudsters seeking to exploit peoples’ fears of the coronavirus pandemic by peddling fake cures or masquerading as government officials through phishing email schemes.

The effort comes on the heels of news that some websites, including one operated by Alex Jones of Infowars, were advertising creams, supplements and other products that claimed to cure coronavirus.

The Food and Drug Administration, as well as the New York Attorney General, has already started issuing warnings to some businesses marketing such products by ordering them to remove false or misleading advertising from their websites.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia warned of several other schemes on the rise, including the creation of fake shops, websites and social media accounts to sell medical supplies in high demand such as masks, as well as charity scams seeking to raise funds to help people impacted by the virus.

Legal experts are also bracing for a possible increase in Medicare-related fraud schemes, after the federal government recently relaxed rules for telemedicine so that people seeking medical advice from doctors can reduce face-to-face encounters as needed.

Telemedicine has been at the heart of several recent major frauds, including a scheme unveiled in September that bilked Medicare out of $2.1 billion over medically unnecessary genetic tests, as well as another $1 billion scheme last April involving medically unnecessary equipment such as back and knee braces. (Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Tom Brown)

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