The Justice Department arrested a California man for hawking a fake COVID-19 cure, marking the first federal criminal case tied to the novel coronavirus.
Keith Lawrence Middlebrook allegedly advertised on Instagram that he’d invented a “coronavirus prevention pill” and an injectable “COVID-19 formula vaccine cure,” falsely claimed that basketball player Earvin “Magic” Johnson was on his company’s board, and promised potential investors millions of dollars in returns. He was arrested after delivering his “prevention pills” to an undercover FBI agent.
There is no vaccine or treatment for the novel coronavirus, although researchers are conducting clinical trials for both. But Middlebrook claimed he was about to mass-produce his own cure. The Justice Department says he garnered around 2 million views on YouTube and Instagram, and he spoke to at least two people about investments: one FBI agent and one cooperating witness. He’s now charged with attempted wire fraud, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
According to California court records, Middlebrook was previously arrested for wire fraud in 2014 after allegedly running a fraudulent credit score improvement business. The case was dismissed in 2016.
The Justice Department and other federal agencies have urged citizens to report coronavirus-related fraud. The Food and Drug Administration sent cease and desist letters to several companies promoting essential oils or ingestible silver for COVID-19 prevention, and the Justice Department filed its first enforcement action over the weekend, issuing a temporary restraining order against a site selling fake “vaccine kits” to collect credit card information from buyers.
State attorneys general have also cracked down on virus-related scams, including New York AG Letitia James who censured radio host Alex Jones for marketing toothpaste and other products as coronavirus killers. Missouri’s attorney general sued to stop televangelist Jim Bakker from selling his own ineffective and potentially dangerous treatment.
US Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen has also said that people who intentionally expose others to the novel coronavirus could be charged under federal terrorism laws since the virus meets the definition of a “biological agent.” However, there have been no arrests for intentional exposure so far.