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12 Scams of Christmas: Mask mandates and growing demand lead to rise in PPE scams

COVID-19 mask generic
Posted at 6:01 AM, Dec 07, 2020
and last updated 2021-03-17 16:56:12-04

BALTIMORE — The Better Business Bureau is seeing an increase in reports about scam websites claiming to sell face masks online but not delivering.

Angie Barnett with the Better Business serving Greater Maryland said there was a spike in scams in the spring as the pandemic spread throughout the country. Now, there's another wave of reports as state and local governments implement mask mandates and Americans prepare for guests over the holidays.

“We had a business here in Maryland that actually ordered PPE (personal protective equipment) online, thought it was a legitimate retailer, and lost thousands and thousands of dollars a small business couldn’t afford to lose,” said Barnett.

It’s not just businesses and consumers sending money to the wrong people, the FBI has received reports from state governments attempting to procure ventilators or PPE and wired money to fraudulent sellers. By the time they realized it, the money had been transferred outside the reach of U.S. law enforcement and was unrecoverable.

“We always say, and holidays are so important, slow down to investigate. Do your research as you’re looking because it’s so easy to get misdirected to a fake website,” said Barnett.

Only buy from sellers you know and trust. Be sure the online store has working contact information, and evaluate claims of any medical product before buying.

Angelica Gomez wishes she did more research after handing over $175 for N95 masks through the online seller EM General.

“My husband, his genes aren't great. He has high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and he had quintuple bypass when he was 38 years old,” Gomez said. “I have two sons with asthma and I have another son who already has diabetes.”

Gomez waited for the masks to arrive, but they never did. When she reached out to the company by phone and email, no one responded.

“They’re creating false hope because it’s not real to begin with,” Gomez said.

Earlier this year, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California charged a Michigan man with wire fraud for allegedly scamming customers into paying for N95 masks that they never received. Rodney Stevenson II controlled EM General and purported to sell an available inventory of “Anti-Viral N95” respirator masks, according to the criminal complaint.

The Department of Justice continues to go after criminals attempting to exploit the pandemic. If you are the victim of a scam involving COVID-19, you can report it to the National Center for Disaster Fraud through their hotline at 1-866-720-5721 or online complaint form.