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An Overview of Federal Criminal Laws

Implicated by the COVID-19 Pandemic



April 13, 2020
As numerous recent incidents indicate, the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic's impact extends
to the world of crime. News stories abound of attempts to profit from the pandemic by stockpiling masks,
hand sanitizer, and other staples to sell at a significant markup. Reports have also circulated about scams
involving the sale of fake COVID- 19 test kits and cures, counterfeit surgical masks, substandard hand
sanitize1\ and unauthorized medicines. Other fraudulent activities have not involved sales at all. Some
have reportedly tried to use the pandemic to solicit donations to illegitimate charities. In addition, the
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has reported a spike in cyber-threats, including COVID- 19-related
phishing emails-messages designed to trick recipients into divulging personal information so the sender
may access, for example, the recipient's email or bank accounts. Still other COVID-19-related illicit
conduct is of a more violent nature, as evidenced by recent reports of individuals publicly attacking
Asians and Asian Americans, erroneously accusing them of causing or spreading COVID- 19. The
Department of Justice (DOJ) warns of the possibility of another offense: the intentional infection of or
threat to infect others with COVID- 19. These incidents and warnings suggest the possibility for COVID-
19-related crimes, even as there is some indication that crime rates have fallen in some cities during the
pandemic. Although state criminal laws likely govern much COVID- 19-related conduct, given the
concern expressed by some Members over the pandemic's effect on justice and law enforcement issues,
this Sidebar examines the primary federal criminal statutes that may be relevant to criminal activity
related to the ongoing pandemic. It discusses, in order: (1) the mail fraud and wire fraud statutes, (2) the
Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), (3) the Defense Production Act (DPA), (4) terrorism statutes and
threat statutes, and (5) the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA).

Mail Fraud and Wire Fraud
Deceptive schemes to profit off of COVID-19, such as selling counterfeit medical supplies and sending
phishing emails, could violate federal statutes prohibiting mail and wire fraud. The mail fraud statute, 18
1 ToS.C.  1341, prohibits (1) knowing or willing participation in a scheme to defraud, (2) and use of the
United States Postal Service or commercial interstate carriers (the mail) to further that scheme. Courts
have interpreted scheme to defraud to include the common understanding of depriving someone of
money or property by dishonest methods such as trickery and deceit. To violate  1341, it need only be
reasonably foreseeable that the mail would be used in furtherance of the scheme to defraud, which
                                                                 Congressional Research Service
                                                                   https://crsreports.congress.gov
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CRS Lega Sidebar
Prepaed for Membeivs and
Committees of Congress

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