Operation ‘Stolen Promise’ promises to hunt down faulty COVID-19 tests

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Joint task force has seized 225 faulty shipments and $3M from coronavirus fraud

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — As border authorities continue to confiscate faulty or fake coronavirus tests, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced a multi-agency task force to thwart counterfeit COVID-19 equipment and criminal activity during this pandemic.

The agency’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) this week began Operation Stolen Promise, which ICE officials promises will ferret out rings and individuals trafficking fake devices or test kits that have duped many communities that are desperate to purchase testing equipment right now.

“Criminal organizations that have historically been engaged in financial scams are pivoting to exploit the coronavirus pandemic and the associated stimulus package for illegal financial gains. These networks are smuggling and selling counterfeit safety equipment and prohibited testing kits, medicines, and hygiene products, as well as running illicit websites to sell their merchandise,” an ICE statement read.

The agency says it expects “financial fraud scams” to increase as families receive federal stimulus checks in their online accounts or through the mail in the upcoming weeks, and as more small businesses and communities receive relief funds appropriated by Congress’ under the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

“HSI will bring every asset to bear against anyone targeting consumers with financial schemes or fraudulent products that jeopardize the health and safety of Americans,” HSI Acting Executive Associate Director Alysa Erichs said. “This unified effort brings a whole-of-government approach to monitor, investigate and arrest those responsible for endangering the public with criminal acts of fraud related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

HSI special agents have already opened more than 130 investigations, seized $3 million and over 225 shipments of mislabeled, fraudulent, unauthorized and/or prohibited COVID-19 test kits. They also have made nine arrests and executed at least seven search warrants, the agency said. The multi-agency task force is partnering with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the U.S. Secret Service, the IRS and the FBI.

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From New York to Texas to California there have been dozens of reports of hospitals and communities duped into buying fake or faulty or equipment not designed to do what the buyer had been lead to believe.

Earlier this month, for instance, officials in Laredo, Texas, disclosed they thought they had purchased 2,500 COVID-19 test kits, but it turns out those kits were not to diagnose an active viral infection, but rather antibody tests to determine if a person already had an immune response against the virus. Neither the city nor Webb County ended up paying for the unusable test kits.

Read a Border Report story on Laredo’s purchase of tests.

The city on Thursday announced its 11th fatality from COVID-19, and that 64 healthcare workers at its largest hospital have been infected. After weeks of delays, due to the faulty test kits, officials on Wednesday began offering drive-thru testing and had tested nearly 50 people. As of Friday there have been at least 1,444 people tested in this town of 260,000 since the pandemic began a month ago.

“We do not have enough testing although we’re getting more and more,” City of Laredo Health Department’s Health Authority Dr. Victor Treviño said on a video call with media on Thursday.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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