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European police have thwarted an international coronavirus mask scheme that would have cheated Germany out of millions of euros by selling the hard-hit nation non-existent masks, authorities said Tuesday.
German authorities last month contracted two sales companies in Zurich and Hamburg to help obtain 15 million euros ($16.4 million) worth of protective face masks amid the pandemic, Europol said in a news release.
But with medical supplies dwindling around the world, police said the companies had to follow new leads to procure the masks. They contacted what appeared to be a legitimate website for a company in Spain that advertised 10 million available masks. However, it turned out to be fake.
The deal with the website in Spain fell through, and the site referred the two companies to a “trusted” dealer in Ireland.
“The Irish middleman promised to put them in touch with a different supplier, this time in the Netherlands,” that could supply the 10 million masks, Europol said.
Face masks, like the one pictured above, have been in short supply during the pandemic. (iStock)
An initial deal was secured in which the companies made an upfront payment of 1.5 million euros for a delivery of 1.5 million masks.
But just before the delivery date, the buyers were told the funds were never received. The supplier urged them to send an additional “emergency transfer” of 880,000 euros ($960,933) to “secure the merchandise,” police said.
The buyers made the transfer, but the masks never arrived.
“It turns out the Dutch company existed, but their website had also been cloned,” Europol said. “There was no official record of the order.”
The buyers immediately contacted their bank in Germany. Authorities located and froze the 1.5 million-euro payment in an account at an Irish bank, and identified the Irish company involved in the plot.
The Justice Department and Department of Health and Human Services are behind the distribution of nearly 200,000 N95 respirator masks and other medical supplies to New York and New Jersey after seizing them from black market sellers.
Dutch authorities tracked down the 880,000-euro payment, finding that nearly 500,000 of those funds already had been sent to a bank account in the United Kingdom and from there were being transferred to an account in Nigeria.
The British bank was able to recover the full amount, which has been returned to the Netherland and frozen by authorities.
Police have arrested two suspects in the Netherlands as the investigation continues across Europe.
Last week, the FBI uncovered an international coronavirus-fueled fraud scheme after more than 39 million masks promised to a powerful California union representing health care workers were never delivered to hospitals and other medical groups in the state.
Fox News' Danielle Wallace contributed to this report.