A California man who peddled prevention pills and a bogus injectable cure for novel coronavirus infections on social media has been arrested on a federal fraud charge.
Keith Lawrence Middlebrook, 53, was arrested by the FBI yesterday evening after posting multiple videos to Instagram claiming he had developed treatment for anyone suffering from COVID-19. He allegedly solicited financial investments for a company he claimed was developing the medicine.
This month, Middlebrook’s videos containing the false claims had been viewed about 2 million times.
His Instagram profile is verified and he has at least 2.4 million followers on the social network. He described himself in his bio as a “genius entrepreneur” and inventor of the “COVID19 Immunity & Coronavirus Cure.”
“This is the cure right here going into mass production,” he said in a post on March 17, viewed over 630,000 times.
“This is going to save and change the world. Yes, I have a meeting set up with president Donald Trump,” he added, holding a syringe containing a clear liquid. The video remained online at the time of writing.In another Instagram clip, posted on March 21 and viewed at least 1 million times, he displayed a pill and said it makes it “impossible” to contract the disease from those who have tested positive.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there is no vaccine to prevent COVID-19, and the FTC stressed there are currently no “pills, potions, lotions, lozenges, or other prescription or over-the-counter products available to treat or cure” the infectious respiratory illness.
A federal complaint — filed in the District Court in Los Angeles — charged Middlebrook with one count of attempted wire fraud, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
It alleged that Middlebrook claimed to have personally created a patent-pending cure and “fraudulently solicited funds” from investors with promises of “massive profits,” prosecutors alleged. The suspect was detained after delivering the “cure” pills to an undercover agent posing as an investor.
The affidavit was based on text messages and phone call communications between Middlebrook and two people he believed wanted to pour money into his venture. The suspect allegedly made a series of claims to the agent, including that a $300,000 investment would yield $30 million in profit.
In his March 17 Instagram video, Middlebrook lashed out at global health officials and the mainstream media for creating what he called a “pandemonium environment.”
Verbatim, the post’s caption stated, “To answer this (just because it’s what I do) I have created a CoronaVirus Prevention Pill. (After 3 Days of taking it the person is Immune to the Virus and STAYS immune as long as they continue taking it once a day it the morning) and also the COVID-19 Formula Vaccine Cure to Satisfy the Physiological and Phycological Need at large.”
In the update, he tagged @realdonaldtrump and @seanhannity.
Middlebrook also appears to have maintained a presence on YouTube, amassing approximately 13,000 subscribers, however his videos do not seem to have had the reach they enjoyed on Instagram.
Prosecutors said Middlebrook will now be held in federal custody until his initial court appearance, which is expected to be Thursday afternoon in District Court in downtown Los Angeles. The FBI said he is associated with several residences, in Westwood, Newport Beach, and Murrieta.
“During these difficult days, scams like this are using blatant lies to prey upon our fears and weaknesses,” U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said in a statement.
“While this may be the first federal criminal case in the nation stemming from the pandemic, it certainly will not be the last. I again am urging everyone to be extremely wary of outlandish medical claims and false promises of immense profits. And to those who perpetrate these schemes, know that federal authorities are out in force to protect all Americans, and we will move aggressively against anyone seeking to cheat the public during this critical time,” Hanna added.
“There’s a particular opportunistic cruelty in seeking to profit based on the fear and helplessness of others,” said Paul Delacourt, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s L.A. Field Office.
“As the country reacts to the current crisis, and while many suffer from losing a loved one or losing their livelihood, the last thing Americans need are con-artists who hawk miracle cures.”
World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)Hygiene advice
- Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
- Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
- Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
- Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.
- Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
- Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
- If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
- Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
- Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.
Mask and glove usage
- Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
- Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
- Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
- Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
- Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
- Do not reuse single-use masks.
- Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
- The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.