The cloned website of a Dutch company has been at the heart of a scam to con hospitals in Germany out of millions of euros, European police agency Europol said this week.
Financial institutions and investigators in the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland and the United Kingdom were involved in foiling the attempt to sell non-existent face masks to hospitals, Europol said.
The scam dates back to mid March when German health authorities contracted two sales companies in Zurich and Hamburg to procure €15 million worth of face masks. ‘With a global shortage on medical supplies complicating usual business channels, the buyers followed new leads in the hopes of securing the masks,’ Europol said.
The sales firms first got in touch with what appeared to be a legitimate website in Spain selling face masks. Unbeknownst to the buyers, the site was a fake and their legitimate email addresses had been comprised.
Through email correspondence, the company initially claimed to have 10 million masks, only for the delivery to fall through. As consolation, they then referred the buyers to a ‘trusted’ dealer in Ireland. The Irish middleman 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. An agreement for an initial delivery of 1.5 million masks was made, in exchange for an up-front payment of €1.5m.
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, Europol said.
Just before the delivery date, the buyers were informed that the funds had not been received and that 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. The Dutch company existed, but their website had been cloned and there was no official record of the order.
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.
The €1.5m was frozen in Ireland and Dutch finance ministry investors tracked down the €880,000. Nearly €500,000 of those funds had already been sent to the United Kingdom, all of which was destined for an account in Nigeria.
Two people in the Netherlands have been arrested and the investigation is continuing, Europol said.
Dutch police have reported on two other attempts to con hospitals out of cash using face masks.
In one case, border police arrested a man accused of selling two million medical face masks to China that were never delivered. The 49-year-old man from Purmerend agreed to sell €8 million of masks to ConectID and TKL Health DD, both based in Wuhan, in February.
In the second case, a man and a woman, both aged 27 and from Dordrecht, were arrested for fraud after telling Dutch hospitals they could deliver a large shipment of face masks but wanted the money upfront.
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