As the COVID-19 crisis spread from China to Europe throughout February, there was growing concern that an outbreak in the U.S. was on the horizon. One glaring vulnerability was coming into focus -- there were not enough masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment to meet the potential need.
Craven R. Casper of Washington, D.C., a self-described "successful American author, businessman and entrepreneur" saw an opportunity, according to court records, quickly creating a business to sell "N-95 masks, surgical masks, hand sanitizer, and other personal protection equipment."
Casper registered a website on Feb. 24 that purported to sell PPE and provide a way for customers to make donations to the "Global Coronavirus Relief Fund" for sending needed supplies like masks, face shields, goggles and virus neutralization solution to hospitals in China and other areas affected by the outbreak, according to court records.
But according to federal prosecutors, Casper is a "professional fraudster."
Despite the growing worldwide demand for protective gear, Casper’s website claimed scarce N-95 masks were "in stock." He engaged in more than 140 customer transactions in a matter of weeks valued at almost $9,000, all paid in advance by credit card, prosecutors said.
But by mid-March, customer complaints began to pile up as urgent orders for masks went unfilled. At least 24 customers filed complaints with their credit companies, according to court records. Soon, federal agents from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service were on the case.
Casper has been in trouble with federal officials before. Postal Inspectors had searched his D.C. luxury apartment last October as part of an earlier fraud investigation. On March 12, Casper pleaded guilty to a single count in that case involving filing fraudulent tax returns in 16 different states and 47 fraudulently obtained tax refunds valued at nearly $200,000.
While on release in that case and awaiting sentencing, Casper continued stealing from customers in his newest scheme, withdrawing money from his account while failing to provide refunds to customers whose orders for masks were never fulfilled, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors said Casper is a seven-time felon, citing his previous convictions in North Carolina for stealing and then selling restaurant equipment and his guilty plea last month. But as agents searched his apartment last week for this most recent allegation of fraud, prosecutors say they found evidence of more crimes, including alleged unemployment benefits fraud.
Postal inspectors also found what they said is a false reimbursement claim made by Casper to the U.S. Postal Service for a package of N95 masks listed as missing that was found in Casper’s apartment.
Casper was arrested last Friday and was ordered held without bond after the government argued "there are absolutely no conditions of release that will ensure that Casper does not continue to defraud people."
Casper’s attorney, Shelli Peterson, declined to comment for this story.
Just as an alleged COVID-19-related scam got him arrested, the spread of the disease through the D.C. jail weighed heavily on whether he would be released pending trial. U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta noted there have been 37 people who have tested positive for COVID-19, that number growing by nine in the past 24 hours.
"I really think it’s a hard call. Under any other circumstances, I would not hesitate to detain Mr. Casper for what I think are new law violations," Mehta said.
Casper’s attorney told the court he suffered from heart disease, high blood pressure and has asthma and possible exposure to COVID-19 could put him at risk.
Mehta said the prosecution's characterization of Casper as "a serial fraudster" was "apt," but that "even serial fraudsters should not be exposed to conditions that present a very real risk to their health and their safety and their life."
Casper was ordered placed on home detention under supervision of his former girlfriend, confined to his luxury apartment with GPS monitoring and no access to phones or computers pending sentencing in his first fraud case and trial for his latest case.
In 2017, he filed a 367-page federal lawsuit against Comcast, NBC Universal and "Saturday Night Live" executive producer Lorne Michaels claiming copyright infringement for use of the phrase "Randy Candy" in a skit. "Randy Candy" is the name of a trademarked name of a novelty apparel clothing line owned by Casper, which includes underwear with an image bearing the likeness of Casper holding a hobo sack full of money. He claimed he was entitled to more than $20 million damages, but a federal judge thought otherwise, dismissing the suit last month.