Allegedly fraudulently replicated the website of a biotech company that has an authorized COVID-19 vaccine to perpetrate the scheme
BALTIMORE – A federal criminal complaint has been filed charging three men on the federal charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud in connection with a scheme to allegedly sell purported COVID-19 vaccines. The criminal complaint was filed on February 9, 2021 and was unsealed today upon the defendants’ arrests. Charged in the criminal complaint are:
Olakitan Oluwalade (“Olaki”), age 22, of Windsor Mill, Maryland;
Olaki’s cousin, Odunayo Baba Oluwalade (“Baba”), age 25, of Windsor Mill; and
Kelly Lamont Williams, age 22, of Owings Mills, Maryland.
The criminal complaint was announced by United States Attorney for the District of Maryland Robert K. Hur; Special Agent in Charge James R. Mancuso of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Baltimore; Special Agent in Charge Mark S. McCormack of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), Office of Criminal Investigations’ Metro Washington Field Office; Postal Inspector in Charge Peter R. Rendina of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service – Washington Division; and Chief Melissa R. Hyatt of the Baltimore County Police Department.
U.S. Attorney Hur stated, “My office and the entire law enforcement community are committed to bringing to justice fraudsters who are preying on citizens during this unprecedented public health crisis. We will also continue our outreach efforts to make the public aware of scams and frauds. I urge citizens to remain vigilant and if you see something that doesn’t seem right, please report it. Don’t become a victim.”
“As the public seeks vaccines to protect themselves and their families from COVID-19, fraudsters are waiting to take advantage of their desperation. We want to remind the public to exercise extreme caution online, especially when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and protective equipment,” said Special Agent in Charge Mancuso of HSI Baltimore. “HSI, with our local and federal partners, is working tirelessly around the country to get fraudulent websites off the internet and counterfeit personal protective equipment and medications off the streets to protect the public from these dangerous scams.”
“It remains a top priority for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service to protect all Americans from individuals who take advantage of people during this public health emergency. We continue to work in conjunction with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and our partners in the COVID-19 Anti-Fraud Task Force to bring those who exploit people during this pandemic to justice,” said Inspector in Charge Peter R. Rendina of the Washington Division of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
“The FDA, along with its law enforcement partners across the country, continues its critical work of protecting American consumers during the COVID-19 pandemic by monitoring the U.S. marketplace for fraudulent COVID-19 products,” said Special Agent in Charge McCormack, FDA Office of Criminal Investigations Metro Washington Field Office. “We remain committed to bringing to justice those individuals and companies that seek to profit from this public health emergency.”
According to the affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint, on January 11, 2021, the HSI Intellectual Property Rights Center and the HSI Cyber Crimes Center became aware of a fraudulent replication of the website of Company 1, a biotechnology company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that focuses on drug discovery, drug development and vaccine technologies, including a vaccine for COVID-19. On December 18, 2020, the FDA issued an emergency-use authorization for Company 1’s COVID-19 vaccine to be distributed in the United States. Company 1’s public website, www.modernatx.com, provides information to the public on the products the company has developed, or is in the process of developing, including those focusing on combating the COVID-19 pandemic.
As detailed in the complaint affidavit, the home page of the fraudulent replication of Company 1’s website, named “Modernatx.shop” (the “Fake Domain”) appeared visually similar to Company 1’s real website and displayed the name and trademarked logos for Company 1, and the logo, markings, colors and texts on the Fake Domain were visually similar to that of Company 1’s actual home page. The source code of the Fake Domain indicated that the creator of the site used a website tool to copy Company 1’s actual website in order to create the Fake Domain.
However, the affidavit alleges that the Fake Domain (unlike Company 1’s home page) had the text: “YOU MAY BE ABLE TO BUY A COVID-19 VACCINE AHEAD OF TIME,” with a link to “Contact us.” On January 11, 2021, at approximately 3:58 p.m., an HSI Special Agent, in an undercover capacity (“UC”), contacted a number listed on the Fake Domain, which investigators determined was linked to an account on an encrypted messaging application which also allows voice-over-Internet calls and video chats. The number replied approximately two hours later requesting an e-mail address to contact the UC, which the UC provided. The affidavit alleges that approximately four minutes later the UC received an e-mail from firstname.lastname@example.org, an e-mail address which appears on the Fake Domain, purporting to welcome the UC to Company 1 and providing a brief description of Company 1 and the storage requirements of Company 1’s vaccine.
According to the affidavit, after several additional e-mails, the UC received information regarding payment, delivery, and purchase for alleged Company 1 vaccines from a Google e-mail address. The UC was sent a purported invoice for 200 doses of Company 1’s vaccine at $30.00 per dose, for a total of $6,000, with payment terms listed as 50% up front and 50% upon delivery. The UC was allegedly instructed to send payment to a Navy Federal Credit Union account in the name of Kelly Lamont Williams. The UC transferred a portion of the funds to Williams’s account as directed.
On January 15, 2021, the government seized the Fake Domain and HSI agents executed a search warrant at Williams’s home. Law enforcement subsequently executed search warrants at Olaki’s and Baba’s homes. As a result of these searches, investigators recovered a number of communications between Baba, Olaki and Williams discussing the fraud scheme. After the search at Williams’s residence, but before the searches at Olaki’s and Baba’s homes, investigators used Williams’s phone to send Baba a message: “Yo where u want me send the bread?” (referring to the cash investigators had sent to Williams’s bank account for the purchase of alleged vaccines as directed). Baba allegedly replied, “Yea send me some thru zelle and some through cash app.” Both Zelle & Cash App are online payment platforms. The affidavit alleges that Baba provided his Cash App User ID name, and investigators made a cash transfer of the funds to Baba’s Cash App account per his request.
As detailed in the affidavit, Olaki allegedly referred Williams to Baba as someone who could assist with the fraud. Williams allegedly agreed to allow the conspirators to use his bank account to deposit the fraud payments in exchange for a cut of the fraud proceeds. Olaki allegedly was also supposed to receive a part of the fraud proceeds. Several of the recovered communications also indicated that Olaki allegedly applied for and received a fraudulent COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan funded by the federal government in the summer of 2020.
If convicted, the defendants each face a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison for conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Actual sentences for federal crimes are typically less than the maximum penalties. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after taking into account the U.S. sentencing guidelines and other statutory factors. The defendants will have an initial appearance on February 12, 2021, in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
A criminal complaint is not a finding of guilt. An individual charged by criminal complaint is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty at some later criminal proceedings.
HSI launched Operation Stolen Promise in April 2020 to protect the Homeland from the increasing and evolving threat posed by COVID-19-related fraud and criminal activity. As of February 9, the agency has seized more than $33 million in illicit proceeds; made 225 arrests; executed 206 search warrants and analyzed more than 74,000 COVID-19 domain names. For its role in the operation, C3 applies technological, operational and criminal investigative expertise, products and services to target the criminals and organizations attempting to commit cybercrimes and exploitation related to COVID-19.
Federal law enforcement agencies are united in our efforts to fight against COVID-19 fraud. HSI has identified tips to recognize and report COVID-19 fraud. If you believe you are a victim of a fraud or attempted fraud involving COVID-19, you may also call the National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline at 1-866-720-5721 or go to justice.gov/coronavirus.