Enlarge /. You didn't buy your mask from FaceMaskCenter.com, did you?
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The COVID-19 pandemic and millions of people in dire need of scarce protective gear like masks and Tyvek suits have been a bonanza for scammers. According to the US Department of Justice, even ISIS now appears to have come into play.
In a series of civil and criminal complaints and foreclosure notices released this week, the Justice Department announced that it had seized hundreds of Bitcoin and Ethereum accounts, millions of dollars, and four websites from well-known Islamist extremist groups that have used these accounts and funds to support terrorist operations. Prosecutors say the forfeited crypto assets of the groups that include ISIS, Al-Qassam Brigades and Al-Qaeda represent "the largest government seizure of cryptocurrency related to terrorism". According to Chainalysis, a blockchain-focused company whose tools were used in the investigation, cryptocurrency transportation alone amounts to more than $ 1 million.
However, one of the jihadist fundraisers that the DOJ did not hold stands out as being particularly bold. Court documents [PDF] describe how an ISIS agent allegedly ran a COVID-19 Personal Protective Equipment [PPE] scam website called FaceMaskCenter.com.
ISIS’s involvement in the COVID-19 PSA fraud industry is only part of a wave of fraud that has flooded the internet since the COVID-19 pandemic began, says Mark Turnage, executive director of DarkOwl, a security firm that supports COVID-19 Scams have been tracking online for months. "We saw a huge amount of illegitimate materials like PPE being sold and never being delivered," says Turnage. "The fact that ISIS has decided to get into this business too isn't really surprising. Everyone is a capitalist. They're taking advantage of the pandemic too."
A civil lawsuit alleged that a confidential source linked an ISIS "broker" using the alias Murat Cakar to the operation of FaceMaskCenter.com and four Facebook accounts that promoted the site. It is believed that Cakar is responsible for managing several ISIS hacking operations. The complaint alleges that he received $ 100,000 from Zoobia Shahnaz, an American woman who planned to travel to Syria to join ISIS and who pleaded guilty to materially supporting terrorism in 2018 after she did Laundered ISIS funds with Bitcoin.
FaceMaskCenter.com said it offers FDA-cleared N95 face masks, as well as a wide range of other PPE, including Tyvek suits, gloves, goggles and thermometers. "FaceMaskCenter is the original online personal protective equipment company and was the first of its kind," says the website, which now only displays a notice of confiscation from the DOJ, the US Treasury and the Department of Homeland Security.
It's not entirely clear to what extent FaceMaskCenter was an outright scam or whether it was just selling low-quality PPE. The civil lawsuit against FaceMaskCenter.com states that the masks offered on the website were made by, for example, a Turkish company and did not meet the stated FDA standards. When a U.S. customer contacted FaceMaskCenter and asked about masks and other PPE for hospitals, nursing homes, and fire departments, a Syrian citizen based in Turkey responded with an offer of up to 100,000 masks, a number the complaint describes as unrealistic Shortage of masks during the global pandemic. It is unclear whether masks were actually delivered.
FaceMaskCenter also claimed to be operated by "plumbing experts" and to have been founded in 1996 when the domain was registered in late February 2020, according to court documents. "There are a lot of different red flags," says DarkOwl & # 39; s Turnage. "Usually from the date the domain was created you can test that this is a legitimate supplier as opposed to someone who is just trying to take advantage of the pandemic."
In addition to this seizure of PSA sites, the DOJ announced that the Homeland Security Investigation Division of the IRS, FBI and DHS was also responsible for financing operations for Al-Qaeda and the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the militant wing of Hamas , has broken down. According to a blog post by blockchain forensics firm Chainalysis about the operation, agents seized more than $ 1 million in total cryptocurrency, mostly from an unlicensed money services business allegedly run by a Turkish man named Mehmet Akti. Chainalysis goes on to write that Al-Qaeda has also forwarded its cryptocurrency donations requested online and by telegram through BitcoinTransfer, a Bitcoin exchange based in Idlib, Syria.
But ISIS appears to have been unique among the groups – based at least on the conduct set out in the indictment – in using a COVID-19 scam to raise money rather than just soliciting donations. The result is that desperate FaceMaskCenter.com customers may not only have come across orders for life-saving devices, but they may have unwittingly contributed to violent extremism.
This story first appeared on wired.com.