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Europol warns against coronavirus scams

March 27, 2020

The European police authority has warned that con artists are preying on fears of illness by offering fake masks, medicine, COVID-19 tests and even vaccines. Bernd Riegert reports from Brussels.

Pills in a plastic casing
Image: imago/G. Czepluch

Across Europe, many companies and individuals are forced to look on hopelessly as contracts are canceled and orders put on hold due to the effects of the new COVID-19 coronavirus. However, not every business sector is feeling the crunch — business is booming for fraudsters and con artists.

Europol, the EU's Den Haag-based police authority, sounded the alarm. Catherine De Belle, Europol's executive director, said on Friday that she was astonished at how fast con artists have come out of the woodwork to set up their latest business model.

"Whereas most people are busy trying to stave off the crisis or help those in need, there are also criminals who are trying to take advantage of the situation," she said. "We cannot allow that to happen. Conducting crooked business during a health crisis is especially dangerous and could put lives at risk."

Europol coordinates with police authorities across the EU and is responsible for all cross-border investigations.

Broken cartons of face masks
Fake face masks and other scam products have been confiscated by policeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Belga/E. Lalmand

Phony medicine

Europol specifically warned against phony medicine available from online sites. The agency said that during operation "Pandea," a recent global sting, police identified 2,000 websites offering useless anti-coronavirus pills, sprays and salves. Europol added that some 4 million packages of fake medicine were seized across 90 countries during the raid.

Read more: Italians search for hope in times of coronavirus

Police said they seized anti-viral medicine as well as counterfeit malaria treatments, none of which had been government approved. Authorities say fake protective masks were also widely available, noting that these were either useless or entirely overpriced. Europol also announced that it had confiscated some 34,000 fake surgical masks in early March.

But scared consumers are not the only ones falling for these cons, federal governments have fared no better. Belgian authorities recently placed a €5 million ($5.5 million) order for masks with a seller in Turkey, and as the Belgian newspaper Le Soir reported, they were never delivered. The Spanish daily newspaper El Pais also cited anonymous sources that claimed the Spanish government had used some 640,000 faulty coronavirus tests in Madrid. The tests were apparently Chinese-made and tended to give inordinately high numbers of negative results.

European Commission sounds note of caution

On Tuesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen released a video warning Europeans to be on their guard against coronavirus con men. Von der Leyen told consumers they should make certain an online company was serious before placing an order. She also clearly stated that any site offering effective vaccines was fake. She told consumers, "Trusted sources will notify you as soon as a vaccine has been developed and approved," noting that federal governments and public institutions would be the first to inform citizens of any medical breakthroughs.

Police officers looking in the back of a trailer truck
A Europol raid targeted fake medicationImage: Europol

Using fake tests to get a foot in the door

Europol also warned citizens of an increase in thefts and home break-ins. As a result of the self-isolation regime brought on by the coronavirus, many businesses and medical facilities are either abandoned or poorly protected, and criminals are also attempting to break into private homes with greater frequency. Europol said criminals often pose as civil servants or paramedics, pretending they need to administer coronavirus tests or monitor presence in a house in order to make their way into a person's home before creating a diversion allowing them to rob unsuspecting individuals.

Read more: Opinion: Economy vs. human life is not a moral dilemma

Such problems are not unique to Europe, the United States also has its share of criminal websites. A Los Angeles-based company that automatically registers websites recently announced it would no longer allow companies with names containing the keywords "corona" or "COVID."

Just prior to that announcement, a federal judge in Texas followed through with a Department of Justice ruling by closing one such site offering vaccine dosages that it claimed were approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) for $4.95 (€4.45) each. Ultimately, the scam was designed to allow criminals to use online shipping forms to steal credit card data from gullible customers.   

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Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union