By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General William Barr directed federal prosecutors on Monday to pursue fraudsters seeking to exploit peoples' fears of the coronavirus pandemic by peddling fake cures or masquerading as government officials through phishing email schemes.
"The pandemic is dangerous enough without wrongdoers seeking to profit from public panic and this sort of conduct cannot be tolerated," Barr wrote in a memo released late Monday to the country's U.S. Attorneys offices.
His memo comes just a few days after the New York Attorney General ordered Alex Jones, who runs the conspiracy theory website Infowars, to stop marketing and selling toothpastes, creams, and dietary supplements that could be a "stopgate" against the coronavirus.
Barr did not cite any specific marketing schemes, but said in his memo he was concerned about people and businesses selling fake cures.
Other reported frauds have included phishing emails from entities posing as the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and malware being put onto mobile applications to track the spread of the disease.
Barr's directive came on a day when many activities across the United States came to a stand-still in an effort to contain the spread of the virus, and financial markets had their worst day in more than 30 years.
President Donald Trump earlier urged Americans to halt most social activities for 15 days and not congregate in groups larger than 10 people.
Many of the Justice Department's employees on Monday started working from home, after receiving guidance late Sunday evening from Assistant Attorney General Lee Lofthus for the Justice Management Division who announced the department would be "moving to a posture of maximum telework."
"By maximizing these social distancing measures, we reduce risk to our families, ourselves, and our communities, while ensuring our operations can continue at full strength," Lofthus wrote in a broad email seen by Reuters, adding that his division has also created a special new email to address all coronavirus inquiries.
Barr, for his part, has also tried to work remotely when feasible, after news broke last week that he and Ivanka Trump had previously met with an Australian official who later tested positive for the virus.
A Justice Department spokeswoman confirmed Monday Barr is still feeling fine and exhibiting no symptoms.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)