In this episode of Unreported Europe, Euronews' Monica Pinna unmasks some of the audacious scams criminals are attempting during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether it’s protective equipment or a miracle cure, if you’ve been offered a supposed bargain during the coronavirus pandemic, you are certainly not alone. From spam email and text messages, to fake adverts on sites such as eBay, the lockdown has seen an unprecedented rise in attempts by fraudsters to trick people out of their money.
“We've all received WhatsApp messages or emails inviting people to make donations, perhaps to entities nobody has ever heard of, or being asked to register on the website of some well-known supermarket chain to get a discount voucher for several hundred euros," says Alessandro Sessa, Magazines' Director at Altroconsumo.
"What repeatedly comes up are price increases or exorbitant prices"
In an effort to crackdown on the fraudsters, consumer rights groups across Europe are taking action. Belgium-based Test Achats has created a platform to identify and report abuses. In just one month it found over 400 infringements.
"What repeatedly comes up are price increases or exorbitant prices, especially for protective equipment, for masks and hydroalcoholic gel," explains Julie Frère, spokesperson for Test Achats.
She adds: “In Belgium, we’re asking for the price of masks to be capped, which is absolutely not the case at present. We’re calling on our government to follow what’s happened in France, where the cost for surgical masks has been set at 95 cents and in Italy at 50 cents. Here we have sometimes seen surgical masks sold for six euros each, which is totally unacceptable.”
Globally, more than 40,000 web domains containing keywords, such as “COVID” or “Corona”, have been discovered. The Belgian consumer rights group has published a long list of illegal or suspicious websites. Test Achats has also warned against miracle cures, and implicit or explicit claims that products can prevent infection from COVID-19. Expensive essential oils, like hemp oil, and purported anti-virals, are just some of the examples.
“The difficulty, of course, is to carry out checks and put restrictions in place. I can give you a simple example. We did a little test to point out five examples of online content that were really problematic. It took three weeks for three of these examples to be taken down. And as I speak, two of them are still online on Facebook,” insists Frère.
What is Europe doing to tackle the fraudsters?
Europe has told the big online platforms like Amazon, e-Bay, and Facebook, to remove any illegal marketing from their websites.
“We’ve managed to get the platforms to take down a whole series of adverts. For example, Ali Express removed 250,000 non-compliant ads. eBay, another large platform, has blocked or removed more than 15 million ads, which is significant. And with Eurojust, we were able to tackle scams targeting the public sector, notably a hospital in the Czech Republic, which was paralysed by a cyber attack. And in Germany we foiled a scam in which over 10 million masks were sold for 15 million euros,” said EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders.
Governments fall victim
It's not just individuals who have fallen victim. Governments have also been hit by cyber attacks and fraud, often through the purchase of counterfeit and substandard goods. One of the most high-profile cases involved the Spanish government. It has come under heavy fire for buying defective coronavirus testing kits.
At the height of the health crisis towards the end of March, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez outlined his government's determination to get on top of the epidemic.
In a public address he said: “The purchase and commissioning of quick testing kits has been launched, it’s something very important - quick tests. We are talking about reliable tests, that have been approved. This approval is very important.”
A few days later though, hope turned to despair when the country's health minister, Salvador Illa Roca, announced that the 58,000 kits were unreliable.
“It’s true that this product came with all the guarantees, it had the necessary certificate to operate in the European Union, it was catalogued, specifications that met with quality standards. But we obviously did the checks when the product arrived and it was found not to have the required level of reliability. So it has been withdrawn,” Illa Roca declared.
Faulty kit fallout
At first, the Madrid government refused to disclose the Spanish distributor that had purchased the equipment. Eventually, it became clear that the manufacturer of the kits - a Chinese biotechnology company - didn't even have certification in China.
Critics have asked how Spain’s health ministry could have made such a mistake?
Speaking to Euronews, Co-Director of Civio Foundation Eva Bemonte accused the Spanish government of cutting corners and failing to follow proper procurement procedures.
"The emergency procedure is being abused. What an emergency procedure allows you to do is to agree to a contract quickly before announcing it publicly, and then all the contract information needs to be published. What’s happening here, with the Government, is that first they didn’t publish absolutely anything about any of the contracts linked with coronavirus. But it is a legal obligation. You cannot avoid it. When they started to publish information about this and other contracts, an important part of the information was still being hidden."
Charity workers become a target
In the UK, over 160,000 suspected scam messages have been sent to the National Cybersecurity Centre. More than 1400 links have also been removed.
Meanwhile in the town of Bracknell, a local branch of the National Charity Age Concern was targeted by fraudsters after they hacked into the email system. Impersonating the charity's Chairman, they demanded an immediate bank transfer of 45,000 euros.
“It was very sophisticated, getting an email from somebody that you work with all the time that certainly wasn’t from you, very sophisticated. And it was a good job that we trapped that when we did, otherwise there’s no question of doubt, that if that money had been transferred out of the charity, that would have been the end of Age Concern Bracknell Forest,'' said Paul Bidwell, Chairman of Age Concern.
While the Charity didn’t fall for the con trick, police say the attempt was a clear example of just some of the types of scams currently sweeping the UK.
“We’re seeing about three percent of what we would normally get at the moment is in relation to COVID-19 cases. And when you look at specific numbers, we’re talking about 1,500 offences at this time, which equates to about just over £3 million pounds worth of loss,” said Detective Chief Superintendent Clinton Blackburn, from the City of London Police.