An international level N95 masks scam is being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The fraudsters based in Australia and Kuwait reportedly targeted a major California healthcare union. The scam involved 39 million N95 masks valued at $9 9 million.
The US, which has become the global epicentre of the fatal coronavirus pandemic, has reported more than 22,000 deaths and over 560,000 infected cases.
The Service Employee International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, representing 97,000 hospital employees, and an unidentified Pittsburgh businessman almost became the victims of the scam, which was busted before any exchange of money could take place.
How authorities were fooled about availability of N95 masks
The federal authorities got wind of the scam after the SEIU-UHW claimed in March that they had found a stockpile of 39 million N 95 masks.
The union said they found the stockpile after spending two days on phone hunting potential suppliers. The media had covered it widely, rekindling hopes among many health care workers who are engaged in battling the virus without proper personal protective equipment.
During the investigation, the feds, who are in the process of acquiring masks for the Federal Emergency Management Agency under the Defense Production Act, were neither able to locate the warehouse nor able to seize the masks.
Pittsburgh-based middleman was in touch with the scamsters
Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Pittsburgh US Attorney Scott Brady said: "We believe we disrupted fraud."
Brady revealed that the investigators tracked the tip back to a Pittsburgh businessman, who said he had been working with the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West to secure millions of masks.
According to the report, the Feds zeroed in on a broker in Australia and a supplier in Kuwait. The scamsters were in touch with the Pittsburgh-based businessman through WhatsApp.
During the investigation, it was revealed that the businessman was serving as a middleman between the scamsters and the union. After buying the masks at $3.50 per piece, he wanted to sell them at a slightly higher price. The entire deal was sealed at $9 million. The UHW, which insisted on making no profit on the further sale of the masks, wanted to sell it $5 each.
The Australian broker even fooled the middleman into believing that two million masks, inspected by a certification company, were available in a Georgia-based warehouse.
Union and Pittsburgh businessman have been cleared by the FBI
Speaking to the Times, Union spokesman Steve Trossman said: "The UHW's only role was connecting the Pittsburgh businessman and the hospitals. As far as we knew, he had legitimate masks and the people who were going to purchase those masks were going to fully vet it and check it out and do their due diligence."
"The union was trying to save the lives of healthcare workers and patients and it was proud of having made that attempt," he added.
Stating that they smelled a rat after finding that the masks were being advertised as N95 masks from 3M, a US-based manufacturer, Brady said: "3M told federal investigators it manufactured only 20 million such masks last year, making that large of a stockpile unlikely unless the product was counterfeit."
"The union and the Pittsburgh businessman are not under investigation and both appear to be among a string of middlemen who were fooled. There are opportunists who are looking for any victim," Brady said.