Consumers in the UK are being warned about rip-off face masks amid suggestions the items should become mandatory in public.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Sadiq Khan are among those suggesting the government may change its guidelines about face masks as the UK plans its exit strategy from the COVID-19 lockdown.
Even if some form of facial covering is made compulsory, members of the public are being warned not to divert critical personal protective equipment (PPE) away from healthcare staff – while some who are doing so are finding themselves victims of fraud.
According to the UK’s national fraud intelligence bureau, British people have been swindled out of more than £800,000 by attempting to buy masks from fake sellers.
The consumer group Which? has called for “urgent government action” after it found online retailers were “failing to get to grips with blatant price-gouging on their websites”.
Sue Davies, of Which?, told Sky News: “Unfortunately a number of opportunistic coronavirus profiteers are looking to take advantage of the current outbreak.
“We’ve found that online marketplaces, such as Amazon and eBay, are unable to stop some unscrupulous sellers exploiting people by selling essential items at ridiculously inflated prices.
“Which? is calling for the government, working with the CMA, to step in with emergency legislation to crack down on price-gouging and keep the price of vital goods reasonable during the current crisis.”
Similar price gouging has been tackled by Google which is warning Google Shopping users that product availability for face masks may be limited and that some listings have been removed for “excessive price increases”.
Facebook has opted to completely restrict sales of face masks and other PPE on Facebook Marketplace.
Dark web drug dealers are also selling potentially counterfeit surgical face masks in a rush to exploit the supply shortage resulting from the outbreak in China.
Alex Guirakhoo, threat research analyst at Digital Shadows, told Sky News: “Over the past few months, cybercriminals have been attempting to capitalise on the COVID-19 pandemic in a variety of ways.
“One such example is the influx of personal protective equipment (PPE) available for sale on criminal marketplaces and forums.
“PPE is not typically sold on these platforms, where the sale of drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and marijuana runs rampant,” Mr Guirakhoo added.
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One of the UK’s largest PPE wholesalers, Arco, warned that “limited reliable information regarding the supply capability of Chinese manufacturers” has presented challenges to import equipment.
Although the bulk sales which Arco conducts for its business are on a different scale to consumer sales, the products all likely originate from the same factories.
This is especially problematic due to “export restrictions of PPE products, imposed across numerous countries including Germany, France, Russia, and Turkey,” which have reduced the market size for purchasers.