Bill would add 15 to 35 years in prison for COVID-19 scam artists

Sellers of shoddy protective gear and thieves of stimulus checks, beware: A bipartisan new bill proposes decades in prison for scam artists exploiting the coronavirus pandemic.

The legislation, introduced late Thursday, would temporarily boost federal criminal penalties by 15 years for pandemic-related fraud and by 35 years for COVID-19-linked counterfeit goods.

The Coronavirus Swindlers, Crooks, and Manipulators (SCAM) Act was introduced by Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Long Island Democrat, and eastern Pennsylvania Rep. Daniel Meuser, a Republican, who say they were outraged by reports of senior citizens being cheated out of their $1,200 stimulus checks via phishing emails and by reports of phony protective masks.

“Taking advantage of elderly Americans amid their anxieties regarding the pandemic is deplorable,” Suozzi said in a statement provided to The Post. “We must do everything we can to deter scam-artists from taking advantage of this global crisis. I am proud to introduce this critical, bipartisan legislation alongside Rep. Meuser.”

Meuser said, “The SCAM Act warns that these scammers engaging in deceitful activities will pay a steep price.”

“Since the coronavirus pandemic began, there has been an unfortunate rise in the number of scams aimed at taking advantage of hardworking Americans and seniors,” Meuser said.

“For example, the [Federal Trade Commission] has reported more than 50,000 scams totaling $38.6 million dollars and the IRS has investigated 15,000 false websites since economic impact payments began. These fraudulent schemes are always shameful, but scammers using this time of crisis to take advantage of vulnerable individuals is absolutely reprehensible.”

The legislation also increases maximum financial penalties for fraudsters.

To qualify for a sentencing hike, the legislation says a crime must occur “in connection with the emergency declared on March 13, 2020, by the President under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act relating to Coronavirus Disease 2019.”

The counterfeiting provision specifies that the product be “advertised by the person as having the ability to treat, prevent, or cure COVID-19.”

The new maximum penalties for fraud statutes would be 45 years in prison and a $1.5 million fine, while counterfeiting penalties would temporarily increase to 45 years in prison — up from 10 years for a first offense — along with a $2.5 million fine.

The legislation may have difficulty passing on its own, but as lawmakers work toward a fifth large coronavirus package, it’s possible there will be a serious effort to incorporate it into a larger deal.

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