New York Attorney General Letitia James Friday sent letters to a number of domain name registrars in an effort to stop the registration and use of domain names by individuals trying to unlawfully and fraudulently profit off consumers’ fears around the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Over the last two months, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) has seen a spike in coronavirus-related domains being registered for the purposes of deceptive advertising, phishing schemes, and malware dissemination.
“In this time of uncertainty, it’s more important than ever that we remain cautious when it comes to companies and individuals selling coronavirus-related products and services over the internet,” said Attorney General James. “These scam sites are not only stoking fear in the hearts and minds of Americans, but are profiting off their appalling deception. We need all consumers to remain vigilant, as my office continues to work diligently to take down these websites and ensure scammers, cons, and cheats are held responsible for their unlawful actions. I encourage any individual with information related to these scam sites to report them to my office immediately.”
Since COVID-19 initially began to spread in January, the OAG has discovered that cybercriminals have been registering a significant number of domain names related to “coronavirus” and using those domains to conduct phishing campaigns and other attacks. One independent study found that three-percent of domains registered since January mentioning coronavirus have been found to be actively malicious, with an additional five-percent categorized as suspicious. These sites have not only marketed fake “treatments” and “vaccines,” but have also potentially created fake “charities” and even coronavirus-related investment opportunities for individuals to invest their money in.
In light of this increase in cybercrime, Attorney General James today sent letters to GoDaddy — the largest domain name registrar in the United States — and five additional domain name registrars (Dynadot.com, Name.com, Namecheap.com, and Registrar.com, as well as the Endurance International Group, which owns Bluehost.com, Domain.com, and HostGator.com), asking these companies to stop bad actors from taking advantage of the current crisis, as well as commit to removing the scam domains.
The AG says the registration and creation of these fraudulent websites could be a violation of multiple laws, including, but not limited to, General Business Law § 349, Executive Law § 63(12), and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1030, as well as the internet registrars’ terms of service for domain registration.
Separately, in an effort to support New Yorkers in the fight against the coronavirus, Attorney General James sent a letter to Craigslist.com earlier today, calling on the company to immediately remove posts that attempt to price gouge users, or otherwise purport to sell items that provide “immunity” to the coronavirus or allow individuals to test for the disease.
Attorney General James has also already sent multiple cease and desist letters to individuals and companies selling and marketing certain products as treatments or cures for the coronavirus, including Alex Jones, The Silver Edge company, Dr. Sherrill Sellman, televangelist Jim Bakker, and others.
There is currently no Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved vaccine to prevent the disease or treatment to cure it, and the World Health Organization has also said that there is no specific medicine to prevent or treat the coronavirus.
Additionally, Attorney General James has issued cease and desist notifications to multiple businesses in New York for charging excessive prices for hand sanitizers, disinfectant sprays, and rubbing alcohol — a violation of New York’s price gouging statute. That statute prohibits the sale of goods and services necessary for the health, safety, and welfare of consumers at unconscionably excessive prices during any abnormal disruption of the market.
The OAG continues to surveil and monitor businesses across the state for potential scams and price gouging schemes designed to exploit public concern related to the spread of the coronavirus. Scammers commonly exploit real public health concerns and use heightened public fear to prey on consumers and profit from frauds related to those health fears. If a consumer believes they have been the victim of a scam or have witnessed potential price gouging, they can report these incidents to the OAG.
Earlier this week, Attorney General James also announced that the OAG will temporarily halt the collection of medical and student debt owed to the State of New York and referred to the Office of the Attorney General for collection, for at least a 30-day period between March 16, 2020 through April 15, 2020, in response to growing financial impairments resulting from the spread of the coronavirus. Countless New Yorkers have been impacted — directly or indirectly — by the spread of COVID-19, forcing them to forgo income and business. After this 30-day period, the OAG will reassess the needs of state residents for a possible extension. Additionally, the OAG will accept applications for suspension of all other types of debt owed to the State of New York and referred to the OAG for collection.