International COVID-19 fraud unmasked


Authorities in Nigeria arrested two suspects believed to be behind a huge fraud scheme which almost saw German health authorities pay EUR 2.4 million for masks they never received.

In March 2020, as a number of countries were going into lockdown due to COVID-19, Nigerian health authorities were desperate to purchase protective equipment for medical staff and contracted a procurement company to find EUR 15 million worth of face masks an Interpol statement said.

Despite being experienced buyers, company representatives were hoodwinked by fraudsters and led down a path of referrals, fake emails, websites, extra fees and ultimately, no masks.

In a case co-ordinated by Interpol, financial crime and intelligence units as well as banks in Germany, Ireland, Netherlands and the United Kingdom raced against the clock to intercept wire transfers and recover down payments made to guarantee an initial shipment of masks.

Once the funds were secured, investigators continued working their way up the fraud scheme to dismantle the criminal group behind it.

Following arrests in the Netherlands, investigators identified a Nigerian contact who planned to send EUR 500,000 from the UK to Nigeria. Evidence showed the man was the mastermind behind the money laundering element of the scheme.

Interpol helped facilitate contact between its national central bureaus and criminal investigation departments and ultimately, a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) was sent to Nigeria from Germany prosecutors.

Nigerian authorities responded quickly, leading to the location and arrest of the mastermind and identifying an accomplice, believed to have opened a corporate account in Lagos to receive criminal proceeds from the scheme.

As investigations continue, Interpol encourages the public to be vigilant when dealing with new business contacts, particularly for purchase of equipment, services or medicines linked to COVID-19.