Georgia man arrested for trying to scam feds by selling $750M in masks during pandemic
WASHINGTON (AP) — A 39-year-old former investment manager in Georgia was already facing federal federal charges that he robbed hundreds of retirees of their savings through a Ponzi scheme when the rapid spread of COVID-19 presented an opportunity.
Christopher A. Parris started pitching himself as a broker of surgical masks amid the nationwide scramble for protective equipment in those first desperate weeks of the outbreak, federal authorities said. Within weeks, Parris was making millions of dollars on sales orders.
Except there were no masks.
Law enforcement officials say Parris is part of what they are calling a wave of fraud tied to the outbreak.
Homeland Security Investigations, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, is leading a nationwide crackdown. It has opened over 370 cases and so far arrested 11 people, as part of “Operation Stolen Promise,” according to Matthew Albence, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“It’s incredibly rampant and it’s growing by the day,” Albence said. “We’re just scratching the surface of this criminal activity. ”
Parris was on pretrial release for the alleged Ponzi scheme when he was arrested last month in what federal authorities say was an attempt to secure an order for more than $750 million from the Department of Veterans Affairs for 125 million face masks and other equipment.
“He was trying to sell something he didn’t even have,” said Jere T. Miles, the special agent in charge of the New Orleans office of Homeland Security Investigations, which worked the case with the VA Office of Inspector General. “That’s just outright, blatant fraud.”
Parris has not yet entered a plea to fraud charges and his lawyers did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.
Nationwide, investigators have turned up more than false purveyors of PPE. They have uncovered an array of counterfeit or adulterated products, from COVID-19 tests kits and treatments to masks and cleaning products.
Steve Francis, director of the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, which is overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says authorities have tracked counterfeits flowing into the U.S. from 20 countries and for sale through thousands of websites.
“There are people popping up who have never been in the business of securing equipment on a large scale,” Francis said.
From his home outside Atlanta, he claimed to represent a company, the Encore Health Group, that had 3M respiratory masks and other protective equipment. At the time, there was a mad scramble for supplies that pitted state and local governments against each other.
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