En español | Three Vietnamese men who set up more than 300 bogus websites that purported to sell scarce pandemic supplies such as disinfecting wipes cheated tens of thousands of Americans, with victims in all 50 states, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) says.
The websites had catchy names — such as babyloves.site, kidstoyshop.site and grandopa.site — but none of the orders placed for the hard-to-find merchandise were fulfilled, DOJ officials say. (None of those websites could be accessed Thursday.) The men also collected consumers’ financial and personal information, putting victims at risk of identity theft, officials say.
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The three men engaged in a scheme that “defrauds consumers in the United States and exploits the current COVID-19 pandemic,” officials say. The case underscores the importance of checking online reviews of any company offering COVID-19 products or supplies, DOJ officials say.
Web of deceit
In the case announced on Aug. 12, the defendants’ web of deceit was elaborate: Their websites were fake; the goods on offer didn't exist; the men never shipped the products even though people paid for the goods; and the men used various email addresses and hundreds of PayPal accounts and even gave buyers fake UPS or U.S. Postal Service tracking numbers, court documents allege.
Additionally, the men falsified contact information on their websites, including “customer service” phone numbers belonging to unaffiliated people and companies. That led these outside entities to receive “disruptive complaint calls about the fraudulent websites,” according to court documents.
Doing business since December 2019, the men initially purported to be selling items including gym equipment and toys. Around March, when the coronavirus outbreak exploded in the U.S., they modified many of their websites to “purport to sell health and safety items that had become scarce in the U .S. market.” At that time they began touting hand soap, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes. The COVID-19-triggered demand for such items “made these products difficult to find, both on the shelves of brick and mortar stores and on e-commerce websites,” the complaint says.
When victims filed complaints with PayPal, the men provided fake UPS tracking numbers that in some cases led PayPal to refuse to refund victims’ money, the complaint says. PayPal did not immediately respond to AARP's requests for comment.
Fraud stretches from Vietnam to Florida
The men used fake business addresses in central Florida and elsewhere, the complaint says. This week a federal judge in Tampa granted a temporary restraining order to prohibit the defendants from doing business using the websites.
In announcing the case, acting Assistant Attorney General Ethan Davis of the DOJ's Civil Division said the department is “committed to preventing fraudsters from exploiting this pandemic for personal gain. We will use every resource at the government's disposal to pursue scammers who are stealing money from citizens amidst the ongoing public health crisis."
The civil case is being handled in U.S. District Court in Tampa. The men were arrested by Vietnamese authorities, who conducted their own investigation, officials say. They are Thu Phan Dinh, Tran Khanh and Nguyen Duy Toan. The case was investigated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Vietnam Ministry of Public Security, DOJ says.