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Joanna Katsigianni runs a small pharmacy on the outskirts of Athens. With the coronavirus spreading at home and overwhelming hospitals abroad, Katsigianni wanted to get ahead of the pandemic and stock her shelves with face masks. “We need to be prepared for the worst,” she said.
Katsigianni found a website, protectivemaskdirect.com, which boasted of “decades of experience supplying infectious disease-related products to healthcare facilities.” Through it, she ordered a thousand boxes of ear-loop face masks and sent a bank transfer for £3,560 ($4,210).
The masks did not arrive — the website is a scam. The people running it are masquerading as a legitimate medical mask supplier to take thousands of dollars from people frantically trying to help health care workers fight the coronavirus around the world, documents and emails obtained by BuzzFeed News reveal.
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The website claims to be “owned and operated by sanitary experts” offering “fast shipping so you get what you want, when you need it, because your health is important to us.” Invoices seen by BuzzFeed News show that it has been using the tax number and company address of a legitimate company, Protective Masks Direct, which supplies Britain’s National Health Service.
Matt Lambert, director of the legitimate Protective Masks Direct, told BuzzFeed News that he has received dozens from confused customers thinking they had ordered from his company. "We were getting emails and calls every day from people wanting to know where their orders were,” Lambert said. “I bet there’s so many more who don’t even know they’ve been conned yet.” Lambert put up a warning on his company’s website — protectivemasksdirect.co.uk — saying that protectivemaskdirect.com “is trying to scam people.”
Protectivemaskdirect.com did not respond to repeated requests for comment sent through voicemail, email, and WhatsApp, nor did it answer repeated calls to a phone number provided by the company on its invoices. The website says the company is based out of an industrial park in Rochester, in the south east of England. Invoices seen by BuzzFeed News suggest that it has a bank account with HSBC. “We take all reports of fraud very seriously and are looking into this case as a matter of urgency,” an HSBC UK spokesperson said.
A shortage of personal protective equipment — including masks, N95 respirators, and gowns — has become an urgent problem for health workers in a number of outbreak hotspots around the world where hospitals have been — or expect to be — deluged with sick patients. In Italy alone, nearly 10% of people infected with the coronavirus are health workers.
Doctors in many countries have been pleading for donations — and good samaritans have been pitching in. But some looking to help are getting duped.
Action Fraud, the UK’s leading fraud watchdog, said it has received 105 reports of coronavirus-related fraud, the majority of which relate to online shopping scams where people have ordered protective face masks, hand sanitizer, and other products, which have never arrived. The watchdog estimates the total losses reach nearly £1 million ($1.2 million).
“Unfortunately all major events and incidents bring out the scammers — a global pandemic is no exception,” said Lord Toby Harris, chair of National Trading Standards, which tracks and fights scams in the UK.
“In the last few weeks, I’ve heard of unscrupulous rogues going door to door pretending to be charity workers, bogus ‘Samaritans’ offering to do the shopping for vulnerable people for payment up front, as well as people selling dodgy COVID-19 tests or even cures,” Harris told BuzzFeed News. “This sounds like a more sophisticated version of the same thing.”
Action Fraud confirmed to BuzzFeed News that it has received a complaint about protectivemaskdirect.com. The watchdog said it did not pass along the complaint to the police because the "person reporting had not suffered a financial loss," but that it was seeking "a suspension of the site."
A wide range of people have been fooled by the scam.
Lambert shared with BuzzFeed News several of the emails he received from frustrated consumers. Ifran Malik, a representative of a large Pakistani oil company, wrote to Lambert after spending £30,000 ($35,490) on 200,000 face masks in order to help protect his workforce against the coronavirus. The company received an invoice for their order from a sales representative identifying himself as “‘Mark Andrew,” complete with a professional-looking watermark. But again, the masks never arrived.
A German wholesaler named Martin Kiesel also got in touch to ask about his order after being scammed. Kiesel wrote he paid £3,500 ($4140) for 50,000 respiratory face masks “10 days ago and now i have no response anymore.” Kiesel could not be reached for comment.
Roberto Carloni owns a souvenir shop in central Rome. When the pandemic forced him to shut down, he started trying to source masks for hospitals near Lake Como, near the epicenter of northern Italy's epidemic, he told BuzzFeed News. The sales representative calling himself Mark Andrew emailed Carloni pictures of warehouses full of boxes with high-quality N95 masks. “These are branded masks from the best manufacturer in the world,” Andrew wrote, “the best in combating the Covid 19 virus.”
Carloni placed his order on March 16. Andrew, the sales representative, told him they would arrive within several days.
Carloni said he told the hospitals that the masks were on their way. “They will be with you,” he recalled telling them. “I give you all my faith.”
But soon afterward, Carloni began to grow suspicious. He did some more research online, which led him to the legitimate Protective Masks Direct, and he emailed Lambert. “I am buying mask from you or a Company that has same name,” he said. “Can you help me to understand if is you or a fake?”
Lambert told Carloni that he had been scammed and that he should report the company to Action Fraud. “Now I am trouble with masks I promised to private hospitals,” Carloni replied. “I Absolutely need masks, all my region is without.”
Carloni told BuzzFeed News he was able to stop the payment going through, and he later managed to source the protective equipment through a legitimate vendor. But the delay did not come without a cost to health workers, he told BuzzFeed News.
“While they wait for my shipment they still have to work,” he said. “They will get infected, and of these people, some will die.”
Martin Kiesel's surname was misspelled in a previous version of this post.