COVID Crime

With Virginia’s court systems slowing to a near halt during the COVID-19 pandemic, committing a major crime during this time may be more of a bad idea than usual.

 Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Lemons declared a judicial emergency in response to the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The declaration calls for the suspension of all nonessential and nonemergency court cases in all Virginia circuit and general district courts until April 6.

The Virginia Department of Corrections also announced that all state prisons, including the Bland and Marion correctional centers, would suspend visitor and volunteer access to its facilities.

During a Thursday afternoon press conference, Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran urged criminal justice officials across the state to take proactive measures to combat the virus.

Moran encouraged the use of summonses in lieu of arrests when possible, as well as the use of pretrial services and electronic monitoring systems where they are available.

Governor Ralph Northam also directed state police to suspend the enforcement of safety inspections for the next 60 days.

Some areas of the country are reporting changes in crime rates that they believe are a response to Coronavirus fears, but most law enforcement agencies in Smyth, Wythe and Bland counties haven’t yet seen such a change.

Wythe and Bland counties have seen a sharp decrease in travel on interstates 77 and 81. While Bland County Sheriff Jason Ramsey says his deputies have seen a slight decrease in crime, Wythe County Chief Deputy Charles Foster said calls for service seem to be holding steady in Wythe County. In Smyth County, Sheriff Chip Shuler said it’s the same story.

Marion Police Chief John Clair has seen no noticeable change yet, but, he said, “I will tell you that confinement typically increases public angst and anxiety and so we do anticipate more calls for service for disputes and disagreements.”

Clair pointed out that law enforcement typically see such patterns when people are confined to their homes during events like snowstorms and heat waves. 

“I think the longer that this goes on, we probably very well could see more of that,” Foster agreed.

That’s something that worries Ramsey.

“It’s a very big concern of ours,” he said. “It’s a trying time. And that’s what we’re worried about is more domestics and possible ECOs (emergency custody orders) and TDOs (temporary detention orders) that may occur because of this.”

Clair also pointed out that scammers tend to emerge to prey on the public’s fear in times of crisis. He said he’s already seeing online phishing scams, where scammers pose as a large grocery store chains offering a free year’s supply of groceries. Another scam that’s cropped up in other areas of the country involve people going door-to-door offering coronavirus testing.

“One thing we can count on in times like this is scams and you are going to see more of it than maybe you’ve ever seen nationwide,” Clair said. “So if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

The Wytheville Police Department also warned its citizens of potential scammers on its Facebook page.

“Times of crisis bring scammers out in an attempt to steal your money and property,” the police department wrote in part. “As always, never give anyone your personal information or account information. Do not let people into your home going door to door.”

WPD reiterated that government agencies will not come to a person’s home to test for COVID-19.

So far, though, this scam has not reached the area.

In response to the increased threat of fraud, however, Virginia and federal law enforcement leaders launched the Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Task Force on Friday.

“Exploiting a global pandemic for financial gain is not only morally reprehensible, it is likely criminal,” said Thomas T. Cullen, U.S. Attorney General for the Western District of Virginia. “Federal prosecutors in Virginia are working closely with the FBI and Virginia State Police to identify individuals who are engaging in coronavirus fraud, in its various forms, and preying on vulnerable populations.”

Cullen noted that the task force would focus on the fraud itself and not the amount of the loss. Prosecutors, he said, will use all tools and statutes to put “bad actors” in federal prison.

Other common scams seen across the nation and state have also included price gouging, investment scams, supply and treatment scams and mobile app scams.

More information about COVID-19 scams may be found on the US Department of Justice’s website at www.justice.gov/usao-wdva/covid-19-fraud.

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