Coronavirus crime: Police foil multi-million Euro face mask scam

14 April 2020, 16:00

File photo: Police foiled an attempt to scam health authorities by selling them non-existent face masks
File photo: Police foiled an attempt to scam health authorities by selling them non-existent face masks. Picture: PA

By Megan White

Police have foiled an attempt to scam health authorities out of millions of euros amid the coronavirus outbreak by selling them non-existent face masks.

Europol intervened after two companies attempting to buy face masks for the German health authorities were scammed in an elaborate scheme.

The plot, which spanned several countries, began after two sales companies in Zurich and Hamburg were asked to procure €15 million worth of face masks.

The buyers contacted what appeared to be a legitimate website in Spain selling face masks, but which was actually a fake.

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The company initially claimed to have 10 million masks, only for the delivery to fall through.

Instead, they referred the buyers to a ‘trusted’ middleman in Ireland, who promised to put them in touch with a different supplier, this time in the Netherlands.

Claiming to have a strong commercial relationship with the company, the man provided assurances that the alleged Dutch company would be able to supply the 10 million face masks.

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An agreement for an initial delivery of 1.5 million masks was made, in exchange for an up-front payment of €1.5 million.

The buyers initiated a bank transfer to Ireland and prepared for delivery, which involved 52 lorries and a police escort to transport the masks from a warehouse in the Netherlands to the final destination in Germany.

But before the delivery date, the buyers were informed that the money had not been received and were told an emergency transfer of €880,000 straight to the Dutch supplier was required to secure the merchandise.

The buyers sent the wire transfer, but the masks never arrived.

When the buyers realised they had been duped, they immediately contacted their bank in Germany, setting off an international race to intercept the funds and follow the money trail.

Europol said the Dutch company existed, but their website had also been cloned and there was no official record of the order.

Thanks to an alert raised by investigators, the UK bank was able to recall the full amount.

Those funds have now been returned to the Netherlands and frozen by authorities.

After Interpol intervened in Ireland, the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau were able to freeze the 1.5 million in the account and identify the Irish company involved.

The Dutch Fiscal Information and Investigation Service quickly tracked down the €880 000 which had been transferred from the German company.

Nearly €500,000 of those funds had already been sent to the United Kingdom, all of which was destined for an account in Nigeria.

This operation, which has already led to two arrests in the Netherlands, is ongoing.