As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues throughout the U.S., federal law enforcement agencies are ramping up to counter a massive spike in fraud stemming from the COVID-19 crisis. Federal investigators are devoting substantial resources to targeting a wide and proliferating variety of fraudulent schemes including the online promotion of bogus coronavirus cures and counterfeit medical supplies, a multitude of scams related to government stimulus payments, and countless other cybercrimes tailored to exploit public fears surrounding the crisis.
“The federal indictments arising from these investigations will certainly allege violations of the federal Wire Fraud and Mail Fraud statutes,” says Sean Buckley, a defense attorney with Brewer, Pritchard & Buckley, P.C. in Houston. “Wire Fraud and Mail Fraud are pretty easy to understand conceptually,” explains Buckley. “Wire Fraud occurs when someone uses electronic means—such as the internet, the TV, or a bank wire transfer—to commit a fraud or receive the proceeds of a fraud, while Mail Fraud occurs when someone uses the U.S. mail to commit a fraud or receive the proceeds of a fraud.”
Federal prosecutors often charge federal Wire Fraud (18 U.S.C. §1343) and Mail Fraud (18 U.S.C. §1341) together with Conspiracy (18 U.S.C. §371) and Money Laundering (18 U.S.C. §§ 1956-1957).
Attorney Buckley – who won a stunning acquittal late last year in a federal Healthcare Fraud case involving $120 million in alleged fraud – believes that successfully defending complex federal criminal fraud cases boils down to the issue of intent. “Federal prosecutors cast a wide net when charging defendants,” says Buckley. “Indictments commonly rest on the superficially nefarious outward appearance of a transaction, while giving little or no consideration to the actual intent of the defendant at the time he participated in that transaction.” Stated differently, the federal government shoots first and asks questions later. “In some cases,” adds Buckley, “a federal criminal indictment represents little more than a bet by prosecutors that the issuance of the indictment alone will sufficiently intimidate defendants and witnesses into providing the government with the evidence it needs to prove its case. “At the end of the day,” says Buckley, “regardless of the facts, federal prosecutors bringing Wire Fraud and Mail Fraud charges must eventually develop sufficient evidence to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant acted with a specific intent to defraud.”
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