Texas Man Arrested by FBI After Claiming He Paid Someone to Spread Coronavirus at Grocery Stores

A 39-year-old Texas man was arrested by federal agents this week after allegedly claiming on social media that he paid a person to intentionally spread COVID-19.

Christopher Charles Perez, of San Antonio, was detained by the FBI and charged with one count of false information and hoaxes related to weapons of mass destruction. The agency confirmed in a release published on Wednesday the arrest was linked to a novel coronavirus-related hoax.

A criminal complaint alleged Perez shared a Facebook post claiming he paid another person to spread the novel coronavirus at grocery stores in the San Antonio area.

In the suspected social media threat, Perez said he did so to deter others from visiting stores, which he claimed would then help to "prevent the spread" of the infectious respiratory disease that is spreading across the U.S.

The FBI was alerted to the post after a screenshot of the threat was sent to a local law enforcement division called the Southwest Texas Fusion Center (SWTFC) on Sunday.

Investigators later determined the Facebook threat had been false and no retail stores were actually targeted. Regardless, Perez was booked on Tuesday afternoon and, if convicted, faces up to five years in prison. He was taken into federal custody, where he remained as of yesterday.

The case—prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Roomber—was investigated by experts from the FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Squad and the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

The grocery stores involved were not named in the criminal filings.

News of the arrest comes after federal agencies stressed a no-nonsense approach would be taken in regard to threats linked to the novel coronavirus—which is now tied to more than 432,000 U.S. infections.

U.S. Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said in a memo to law enforcement chiefs in March that exploiting the health crisis "is reprehensible and will not be tolerated." The notice, first obtained by Politico, said that criminal activity could potentially violate "terrorism-related statutes."

The novel coronavirus, which is believed to have killed more than 88,500 people globally at the time of writing, appeared "to meet the statutory definition of a 'biological agent,'" Rosen wrote.

The FBI last month arrested a California man after he was accused of peddling a COVID-19 cure on Instagram. There is currently no cure or vaccine for the novel coronavirus, experts stress.

On Tuesday, federal officials released a fresh warning that there had been a steady increase in fraud linked to the illness—including cyber threats designed to take advantage of the vulnerable.

Joseph Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the FBI Boston division, said scammers have been using people's "fears, isolation, and thirst for information to their advantage."

He added: "They're targeting anyone they deem as vulnerable to try and steal their money, their personal information, or both. We also want you to avoid falling prey to these scams."

"Please don't click on links within emails from senders you don't recognize, always independently verify information originates from a legitimate source, never supply your login credentials or financial data in response to an email or phone call, and visit websites by inputting their domains manually. By working together, we can help stop this type of activity," special agent Bonavolonta said.

California store during coronavirus
Seniors shop for groceries during special hours open to seniors and the disabled at Northgate Gonzalez Market, a Hispanic specialty supermarket, on March 19, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. Mario Tama/Getty