California man arrested over alleged scheme to sell bogus coronavirus cure

California man arrested over alleged scheme to sell bogus coronavirus cure
© Getty Images

A California man was arrested on Wednesday and charged with hatching a scheme to launch a company peddling fraudulent cures for the novel coronavirus in what is believed to be the Justice Department's first criminal fraud case related to COVID-19. 

Keith Middlebrook, 53, is accused of soliciting investments for a firm that he said would sell pills that prevent the coronavirus and an injectable cure for those already suffering from the disease. He promoted the bogus cures in videos on Instagram and YouTube that racked up more than 2 million views, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California said

Middlebrook has been charged with one count of attempted wire fraud, a felony that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The complaint against Middlebrook alleges that he falsely claimed to have developed a “patent-pending cure” to prevent contracting the novel coronavirus. He allegedly solicited funds from investors for a company named Quantum Prevention CV Inc. and claimed that NBA legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson was on the firm's board of directors, prosecutors say.

He was arrested by FBI agents on Wednesday night in a sting operation in which Middlebrook allegedly believed he was meeting with a potential investor. The U.S. attorney's office said that Middlebrook delivered pills to an undercover agent before being detained. 

“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."

Middlebrook's Instagram page, which has roughly 2.4 million followers, includes several videos of him promoting his fraudulent products. In one video from March 21, Middlebrook claimed that he was "beyond qualified" in the field and that the pill he developed would prevent anyone from contracting coronavirus. 

In the caption of the post, he accused the "mainstream media," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization of "needlessly" shutting down the U.S. economy in an effort to hurt President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal plan to contain Washington protests employs 7,600 personnel: report GOP Rep calls on primary opponent to condemn campaign surrogate's racist video Tennessee court rules all registered voters can obtain mail-in ballots due to COVID-19 MORE. The post has been viewed more than 1 million times. 

ADVERTISEMENT

A spokesperson from Facebook, which owns Instagram, told The Hill that Middlebrook's Instagram account was removed on Thursday for violating its policies 

According to a criminal affidavit, Middlebrook claimed that a $300,000 investment in his company would lead to a $30 million return. He made the claims in calls with a cooperating witness and an undercover FBI agent, prosecutors say. 

Middlebrook is set to appear in district court in Los Angeles on Thursday afternoon. 

Updated March 26, 6:55 p.m.