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San Diego prosecutors crack down on COVID-19 hate crimes, price gouging

Posted: 7:44 AM, Mar 24, 2020
Updated: 2020-03-24 10:44:44-04
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SAN DIEGO (CNS) - San Diego prosecutors from the city, state and federal levels announced joint efforts Monday to combat hate crimes and predatory business practices by individuals or businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.

Local prosecutors and law enforcement agencies say they are responding to reports of discrimination and harassment against Asian Americans and immigrant populations related to COVID-19, as well as price gouging of products like food, hand sanitizer and protective masks.

Scams touting false coronavirus treatments and cures, fake at-home testing kits, and calls for fraudulent financial investments have also been reported, according to the joint announcement from the San Diego City Attorney's Office, San Diego County District Attorney's Office and U.S. Attorney's Office.

City Attorney Mara Elliott said, "We are working together with all levels of government to target and hold accountable those who spread hatred and exploit residents while our community grapples with these difficult circumstances."

Prosecutors say price gouging reports from across San Diego County include one store tripling the price of eggs, a shop owner re-selling Costco-brand bottled water at four times the retail price, and a medical supply business charging five times the usual price for hand sanitizer and twice the price for boxes of surgical masks.

"We rely on reports from San Diegans across the county to stop greedy price gouging, fraudulent schemes and discrimination as a potential genesis for hate crimes," District Attorney Summer Stephan said.

"We will stop crooks who prey on the natural fears and vulnerabilities that our community is experiencing due to the COVID-19 pandemic," the county's top prosecutor said. "We want the public to know that we stand with them and will continue to bring justice during this vulnerable time. We are working in partnership with public safety leaders to investigate reports and act swiftly to halt illegal practices. So far, the incidents reported to our office have resulted in immediate compliance by businesses that our investigators have contacted."

On the federal level, the U.S. Attorney's Office says it is pursuing individuals or companies committing wire fraud, mail fraud, identity theft and other federal offenses designed to defraud vulnerable consumers during the pandemic.

"We will not tolerate fraudsters who try to take advantage of the current pandemic to cheat and steal," U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said.

Reports of price gouging and other predatory business practices can be made to:

-- the City Attorney's Office's Affirmative Civil Enforcement Unit at 619-533-5618 or online at https://www.sandiego.gov/cityattorney/divisions/civillitigation/civilprosecution

-- the District Attorney's Consumer Protection Unit at 619-531-3507

-- the National Center for Disaster Fraud hotline at 1-866-730-5721 or by emailing disaster@leo.gov

To report a hate crime, residents are advised to contact the San Diego Police Department at 619-531-2000 or 858-484-3154, or the San Diego County Sheriff's Department at 858-565-5200.