A group of opportunists spent weeks buying up 100,000 medical masks from pharmacies around the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Seeing the demand for medical masks on the rise as the coronavirus spread across the globe, they hoped to resell them and make a quick profit.
Last week, they posted an advert online offering to sell the masks — which had cost them around $38,000 to purchase — at a significant markup. They soon got a response and arranged a time and place to cut a deal with their prospective buyers.
The deal turned out to be more than they bargained for.
A group of three men, wearing a uniform similar to that of Ukraine’s State Security Service, came to buy the masks. But these men weren’t agents of the state — they were in fact thieves dressed up in order to rob the sellers. The men threatened the sellers with “pistol-like weapons” and forced them to lay on the ground. Then they loaded the boxes of medical masks into their cars and sped away in different directions.
The medical mask heist, which went down Saturday, was announced Tuesday by Ukraine’s Kyiv Directorate of the National Police and the Kyiv Prosecutor’s Office. Those law enforcement bodies said three suspects had been arrested. Some of the details about the heist were provided exclusively to BuzzFeed News by the police.
The targets of the robbery notified the authorities and provided details, including text messages, that led to the arrests.
A video of the bust published by the police shows officers inspecting dozens of stacked cardboard boxes filled with blue medical masks and two of the suspects in handcuffs.
The thieves face 10 years’ imprisonment and confiscation of personal property if they’re convicted of armed robbery.
While their actions might be morally dubious at a time of global pandemic, the group of opportunists who bought up the medical supplies do not face any charges.
Ukraine has just 14 confirmed cases of COVID-19, seven of which were confirmed by the Ukrainian Health Ministry’s Public Health Center on Tuesday, but it has taken extraordinary measures to try to stave off an outbreak like those in countries that have been ravaged by the virus. Its president has ordered nationwide quarantine measures, including a ban on international and domestic travel and exports of medical equipment, until at least June 1.
As the novel coronavirus sweeps across the world and the demand for medical supplies grows, some people are jumping at the chance to profit from it — and perhaps fueling the outbreak of the coronavirus in the process.
In perhaps the best example of hoarding and price gouging in the US, two brothers in Tennessee stockpiled 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer they hoped to resell on Amazon at $70 per bottle. While they managed to sell some of their merchandise at marked-up prices, they were blocked by the platform from selling most of it.
The brothers, featured in a New York Times article on Saturday, received a barrage of criticism from a public frustrated by empty store shelves. On Sunday, the men were finally forced to give away their products. Tennessee, which declared a state of emergency last Thursday, triggering an anti–price gouging law, is still investigating the brothers’ case, CBS News reported.
According to the New York Times, attorney general offices in California, Washington, and New York are all investigating price gouging related to the coronavirus.
Health experts say hoarding medical supplies actually raises the risk of the coronavirus spreading farther and faster.
Volodymyr Kurpita, former chief of the Ukrainian Public Health Center, told BuzzFeed News by phone from Kyiv that stockpiling supplies like masks can lead to shortages, which “puts the people fighting the coronavirus” — doctors, nurses, paramedics, and other health care workers who come in frequent contact with people — “at increased risk.”
“You are also putting yourself at higher risk because you are visiting shops and pharmacies and places elsewhere and are coming in contact with people” who may not have a mask or be using hand sanitizer because of shortages, Kurpita added.
Underscoring the danger of such shortages, a top New York cancer clinic with only enough masks for about a week has seen at least three patients and five staff members diagnosed with COVID-19, according to internal emails and a transcript of a staff meeting obtained by BuzzFeed News.
Andriy Kryshchenko, deputy head of Ukraine’s National Police, suggested in a statement to the media Tuesday that the incident that occurred in his country should serve as a warning for both medical supply hoarders and criminals.
“Taking advantage of the situation, the attackers decided to try and profit off of the demand for essential goods,” Kryshchenko said. “In the future, their accomplices planned to resell the medical masks, but their illegal actions earned them only a jail term.”