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Irish 'wheeler dealer' at heart of €15m face mask scam across globe

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How elaborate scam worked

How elaborate scam worked

How elaborate scam worked

A 48-year-old man quizzed by fraud squad detectives as part of a probe into a sophisticated international €15m Covid-19 scam has been described as a "wheeler dealer" businessman who is "down on his luck".

The man, who is originally from Co Clare but is now living in Co Roscommon, was questioned by specialist officers for number of hours on Friday.

He is understood to be co-operating with the garda probe and he was not arrested as part of the massive international investigation into a huge face-mask swindle.

Gardai said that documents and electronic devices were obtained and are currently being forensically examined, but this process may take a number of months to complete.

"This individual was not previously known to gardai for involvement in crime and he certainly does not fit the profile of someone involved in organised crime at this level," a source told the Herald last night.

"It would be fair to say that he is a failed businessman who is down on his luck.

He has been involved in many enterprises over the years, including senior roles in the retail and hospitality sectors as well as a number of other enterprises.

Scheme

"This individual was not arrested last week but it is very likely that he will be in the coming weeks as €1.5m has been found in his bank account. This cash has been frozen.

"The big question now is to establish how this individual got involved in such a massive fraud scheme. It is also fair to say that he is an eccentric type of person," the source explained.

The investigation was launched when German health authorities made an upfront payment online of €1.5m for face masks, only to discover the website advertising the personal protective equipment (PPE) was being operated by scammers.

The German state of Nord Rhein Westphalia, worst affected for coronavirus cases in that country, contracted a company based between Zurich and Hamburg for 10 million face masks at a cost of €14.7m.

They then went to a trusted supplier in Spain but the scammers had set up a cloned website for this company who claimed they could not fulfil the order due to high demand of PPE needed because of the global coronavirus pandemic.

They were then directed to an Irish middleman who put them in touch with a Dutch company and distributor, whose website and details have been cloned by scammers.

A deal was made and €1.5m was paid up front to an Irish company based in Roscommon, and €880,000 is forward to the account of a Dutch company, with the rest of the money to follow.

On 27 March Irish and German stakeholders made the trip to Amsterdam to oversee the handover.

52 vehicles had been sent from Germany to collect the masks and were due to receive a police escort at the border, but the shipment never arrived.

The transactions were made by the German companies' managing director while in home quarantine in Bavaria at the end of March after a holiday in Austria and a complaint was made to police in the Traunstein Region on March 30.

Recovered

A total of €12.3m was returned from the company to the German state and the €1.5m was traced to a bank account in Roscommon and frozen.

Of the €880,000 sent to the Dutch account, €490,000 was traced to a Nigerian bank account which was deposited from a UK account.

That money was recovered. A further €125,000 was transferred to another Dutch bank account.

Two men appeared in a Dutch court on April 9 in relation to alleged fraud, falsification and money laundering in connection with above €880,000 proceeds of crime.

Yesterday gardai announced details of the investigation which is being led in this State by the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau (GNECB) which is working with Irish, German and Dutch Financial Intelligence Units (FIUs) and supported by international police agencies.

Gardai revealed that the suspect questioned last Friday under "section 7 of the Criminal Justice (Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing) Acts 2010 to 2018".

"This is a serious offence carrying a maximum term of imprisonment of 14 years after conviction on indictment," a spokesman said.

"Enquires under covered that fraudsters had captured the address of a real existing Dutch Company whom operate in this business and opened a bank account at the same Dutch bank as the real company in a compromised similar name," the garda spokesman said.

Crime

"This case initially came to the attention of the financial sector which alerted the authorities in each jurisdiction including Interpol and Europol.

"Interpol is now coordinating the case, which allows for a cohesive investigative approach.

The investigation is ongoing and Interpol continues to support its member countries in their common goal to combat Covid-19 related financial crime," he added.