SAN ANTONIO - A Texas man was sentenced to more than a year in federal prison for spreading a COVID-19 hoax on social media in which he falsely claimed to have paid someone infected with the virus to lick items at a grocery store, authorities said.
Christopher Charles Perez, a 40-year-old from San Antonio, was found guilty of two counts for violating a federal law that criminalizes false information and hoaxes related to biological weapons, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Texas.
Evidence presented during the trial showed that Perez posted two threatening messages on Facebook in April of 2020 in which he claimed to have paid someone infected with COVID-19 "to lick items at grocery stores in the San Antonio area to scare people away from visiting the stores," prosecutors said.
A screenshot of his initial post was sent to authorities at the Southwest Texas Fusion Center, which then contacted the FBI office in San Antonio for further investigation.
"The threat was false. Perez did not pay someone to intentionally spread coronavirus at grocery stores, according to investigators and Perez’s own admissions," the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a news release.
Perez was arrested by FBI agents on April 7. On Monday, he was sentenced to 15 months in prison and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine.
He had faced up to five years in federal prison, authorities said.
FILE - The Facebook app and others are seen on an iPhone in this photo illustration taken on Jan. 29, 2019. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
"Trying to scare people with the threat of spreading dangerous diseases is no joking matter," U.S. Attorney Ashley C. Hoff said in a statement. "This office takes seriously threats to harm the community and will prosecute them to the full extent of the law."
In May, the U.S. Attorney General created a COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force to combat and prevent pandemic-related fraud.
"Those who would threaten to use COVID-19 as a weapon against others will be held accountable for their actions, even if the threat was a hoax," FBI San Antonio Division Special Agent in Charge Christopher Combs said in a statement. "Perez’s actions were knowingly designed to spread fear and panic and today’s sentencing illustrates the seriousness of this crime."
This story was reported from Cincinnati.