Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Tuesday to specify and enhance penalties against fraudsters and scammers capitalizing on the COVID-19 pandemic.
The proposal (HB 9) establishes criminal penalties and authorizes civil remedies against swindlers seeking vaccines and personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic.
It also stiffens penalties against fake websites and other fraudulent COVID-19 ploys. In many instances, swindlers offer vaccine access in exchange for large sums of money.
Sponsored by Republican Rep. Ardian Zika of Pasco County, the bill was introduced as federal and state officials warned consumers to be wary of offers advertising special access to vaccines or PPE.
Notably, Zika’s bill was the first measure to pass in the House during the 2021 Legislative Session. It cleared both chambers with unanimous support.
“This is an important piece of legislation that protects our consumers against fraud during a pandemic,” Zika told House members.
The bill further prohibits the dissemination of false or misleading vaccine or PPE information with the intent to defraud.
Shortly after officials first identified the COVID-19 virus in Florida, Attorney General Ashley Moody began warning of coronavirus scams. Scammers, she said, try to exploit people’s fears about the pandemic to rip them off.
As of April, the South Florida U.S. Attorney’s Office filed 38 COVID-19 financial fraud cases, with dollar amounts approaching $75 million.
And nationally, more than 19,000 new websites selling PPE emerged as the COVID-19 pandemic took root. Thousands of Americans reported placing orders on online sites and never received a product, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
While some of the pandemic scams can be prosecuted under current state law, stopping other fraudulent activity has been difficult. As proponents explained, state laws aren’t equipped to handle vaccine-related frauds.
The bill aims to solve those problems by creating the new crimes and enhancing penalties against perpetrators.