How Criminals Used COVID-19 Sales Pitch to Defraud, Launder Money

3 mins

As the world is working hard to contain the spread of the COVID-19, criminals continue to take advantage of the pandemic. They are devising sophisticated methods to defraud people and launder the criminal proceeds using the financial system. The latest in the news is a sophisticated international fraud scheme using compromised emails, advance-payment fraud and money laundering. Involving financial institutions and authorities across Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and the UK, the case was coordinated by the INTERPOL. Leading to the arrests of two people in the Netherlands, it sparked further investigations across Europe and more arrests expected in the coming days.

Unmasking the Scheme

According to a narrative by the INTERPOL, the criminals capitalized on the increasing demand for face masks as a large number of countries were going into lockdown in mid-March due to the coronavirus outbreak. Here’s what happened.

  • German health authorities, who were following new leads, contracted two sales companies in Zurich and Hamburg to procure EUR 15 million worth of face masks. They were unable to procure from usual business channels due to a global shortage of medical supplies.
  • To secure the deal, criminals created a fake company website that appeared to be linked to a legitimate company in Spain selling face masks. Using compromised legitimate email addresses, they started email correspondence claiming they have 10 million masks in stock.
  • When the delivery fell through, the criminals referred the buyers to a ‘trusted’ dealer in Ireland. The Irish middleman promised to procure 10 million masks from a different supplier in the Netherlands. The parties agreed on an initial delivery of 1.5 million masks for an upfront payment of EUR 1.5 million.
  • The buyers initiated a bank transfer to Ireland and prepared for the delivery from the Netherlands to Germany.
  • Just before the delivery date, the buyers were informed that the funds had not been received and required an emergency transfer of EUR 880,000 straight to the Dutch supplier to secure the merchandise. The Dutch company existed, but their website had also been cloned. There was no official record of the order.
  • The criminals sent nearly EUR 500,000 of those funds to the UK, all of which were destined for an account in Nigeria.

Following the Money Trail

When the German buyers understood they had been defrauded, they contacted their bank in Germany, which in turn contacted INTERPOL. The international agency contacted Irish authorities who were able to freeze the initial transfer of EUR 1.5 million and identify the Irish company involved. Meanwhile, the Dutch authorities tracked down the EUR 880,000 transferred from the German company. Criminals had already sent EUR 500,000 of those funds to a bank in the UK. Following INTERPOL’s intervention, the UK bank could recall the amount, thanks to an alert raised by investigators.

“Those arrested in this case had no connections to the medical equipment industry. They were simply experienced fraudsters who saw an opportunity with the outbreak of COVID-19, said Jürgen Stock, INTERPOL Secretary General. “They adapted their sales pitches to take advantage of strained supply chains and generate huge profits,” he added.

Public, Banks Need to be Vigilant

INTERPOL has warned that the public need to remain vigilant as organized crime cells continue to adapt their criminal activities to benefit from the crisis. As there are a number of pandemic-related factors contributing to the expected crisis within financial services, financial crimes pose a serious threat to their business. Financial institutions and their compliance teams are already facing a multitude of operational difficulties due to the pandemic. Compliance failures, though expected during a crisis like this, can be curtailed to a great extent with the use of the right technology. Modern technology can not only help mitigate risk, but it can augment process efficiency significantly to levels where financial institutions may be able to face similar crises smoothly.

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