Police in Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands have retrieved nearly $1 million from a coronavirus mask-supply scammer just as the money was about to be sent to Nigeria.
Interpol, the international police coalition, said the sophisticated fraud scheme used compromised emails and a fake website.
Police intercepted the funds before they could be dispatched to Nigeria.
“In mid-March, as a number of countries were going into lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, German health authorities contracted two sales companies in Zurich and Hamburg to procure EUR 15 million worth of face masks,” Interpol said. “With a global shortage on medical supplies complicating usual business channels, the buyers followed new leads in the hopes of securing the masks.”
The scammers set up an email address and a website that appeared to link to a legitimate company in Spain and offered masks for sale.
“Unbeknownst to the buyers, the site was a fake and their legitimate email addresses had been compromised,” the police group said.
The company claimed to have 10 million masks, but the “delivery” fell through. Then the “company” referred the buyers to a “trusted” associate in Ireland, who pointed the buyers to another seller.
“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. An agreement for an initial delivery of 1.5 million masks was made, in exchange for an up-front payment of EUR 1.5 million,” Interpol said.
The buyers then sent a bank transfer and prepared for the delivery of the 52 truckloads they expected.
“Just before the delivery date, the buyers were informed that the funds had not been received and that an emergency transfer of EUR 880,000 straight to the Dutch supplier was required to secure the merchandise,” Interpol said.
The money was sent, but “the masks never arrived,” police said. “It turns out the Dutch company existed, but their website had also been cloned. There was no official record of the order.”
Authorities jumped into action, and the German bank reached out to Interpol’s financial crimes unit, along with bank officials, chased the cash.
“Prompt intervention by the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau allowed them to freeze the 1.5 million in the account and identify the Irish company involved,” police said.
“Dutch Fiscal Information and Investigation Service quickly tracked down the EUR 880,000 which had been transferred from the German company. Nearly EUR 500,000 of those funds had already been sent to the United Kingdom, all of which was destined for an account in Nigeria,” said Interpol.
Officials were able to recall the full amount, and arrests soon followed.
“Those arrested in this case had no connections to the medical equipment industry. They were simply experienced fraudsters who saw an opportunity with the outbreak of COVID-19,” said Jürgen Stock, Interpol secretary general.
“They adapted their sales pitches to take advantage of strained supply chains and generate huge profits.”