In a coordinated operation, Europol and Interpol, financial institutions and authorities across Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have foiled an attempt to cheat health authorities out of millions of euros by selling them non- existent face masks.

In mid-March, the German health authorities contracted two sales companies in Zurich and Hamburg to procure 15 million euro (USD 16.4 million) worth of face masks, Europol said in a press release Tuesday.

With a global shortage on medical supplies complicating usual business channels due to coronavirus, the buyers followed new leads in the hopes of securing the masks.

They first got in touch with what appeared to be a legitimate website in Spain selling face masks. Unbeknown to the buyers, the site was a fake and their legitimate email addresses had been comprised, it noted.

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.

Just before the delivery date, the buyers were informed that the funds had not been received and that an emergency transfer of 880 000 euro(USD 965,000) straight to the Dutch supplier was required to secure the merchandise.

The buyers sent the wire transfer and the masks never arrived. It turns out the Dutch company existed, but their website had also been cloned. There was no official record of the order.

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

Nearly 500,000 euro (USD 548,000)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 as investigators across Europe are continuing to work on investigative leads with the continued support of Europol and its partners, it noted.

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