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FDWs lose at least $300k to face mask scammers

05 March 2020

By Daisy CL Mandap

Face masks sold online vary in prices, quality, and place of origin

Foreign domestic workers have not been spared by scammers who have been taking advantage of the near-desperate attempts by many in Hong Kong to secure surgical masks at any cost.

These scammers have been offering the face masks online at attractive prices, especially for bulk purchases. In three cases alone involving both Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers, the amount involved was at least $300,000.

Not included in these big cases are individual buyers who reported losing between $6,000 and $12,000 to fellow Filipinos who reportedly blocked them online after they had paid for the highly sought-after protection against the novel coronavirus.
Neither do they include a local Hong Kong buyer who had complained to the Consulate, claiming to have lost $200,000 to a Filipino supplier who could no longer be contacted after the money was sent.

The biggest single case of a Filipino domestic worker being allegedly victimized was that of M.G., who sought the Consulate’s help after failing to receive from her Filipina supplier the promised 1,500 boxes of face masks, for which she had paid $120,000.

M.G. said she purchased the masks for a Filipina friend, who claimed she wanted them for her big family, and that of her boyfriend’s.
“If for business di ko po alam kasi tumulong lang sya,” said M.G. in a text message.
“At siya po ang nag finance, hindi ako.”

M.G. first sent $80,000 to the Filipina supplier, R.F., to pay for 1,000 boxes, each containing 50 pieces, at below-market price of $80 a box on Feb. 8. She then sent a further $40,000 for 500 more boxes.

After failing to receive the masks as promised on two separate dates, M.G. sought help from the Consulate on Feb. 23.

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On the same day, another Filipina also sought help from the Consulate, claiming she had been scammed out of the $24,465 she had paid the same supplier for 300 boxes of face masks.

A Filipina who had brokered both deals had reportedly assured the Consulate that the money would be returned to the buyers within a few days.

Masked Filipinos at the Consulate on a Sunday

Arnel de Luna, an officer at the assistance to nationals section of the Consulate declined to give details of specific cases, but said they could intercede if the parties involved are Filipinos.

“Hahabulin natin kung Filipino nationals ang involved, pero kung hindi naisauli ang pera, kailangan na silang magsumbong sa pulis,” said de Luna.

But in most cases, he said the complainants hesitate about going to the police because they fear being investigated in turn for engaging in business, something not allowed under their employment visas.
This was true in the case of V.S., who admitted in a recent Facebook post, to having collected a total of $11,475 from a number of buyers, some of whom had placed orders on behalf of their employers.

V.S. said she accepted full responsibility for the failure of her supplier to deliver the face masks as promised. She said she had to borrow money just so she could refund her buyers, and at the time of her post, had already returned a total of $7,000.

Another buyer, Marie (not her real name), sought help from the online group, Domestic Workers Corner, after losing $5000 to an online seller she met only on Facebook, and whose location had been listed down as United Kingdom.

After she had sent the money, Marie said she was suddenly blocked on Facebook by the seller. A friend she consulted told her the person who just scammed her appeared to be a fellow Filipino.

Marie said she spent several nights crying over the money she lost, as she had been saving it up for three months. When her kindly employer learned what had been causing Marie sleepless nights, she gave the helper $2,000, but warned her to seek advice first before sending money to an unknown person.
A group of Indonesian domestic workers lost $150k to mask-selling scammers
There was no such relief for a group of Indonesian domestic workers who collectively lost about $150,000 to scammers peddling surgical masks  online.

According to Indonesian migrant leader Eni Lestari, the victims reported the fraud to their consulate last Sunday, Mar. 1. But as in the case of the Filipina victims, they were hesitant to go to the police, fearing their complaint could backfire.

Meanwhile, a source at the Consulate confirmed that a local resident had sought help about being made to pay a Filipino seller for $200,000 worth of face masks that never arrived, but declined to give more details. The case is being investigated.

Since the coronavirus outbreak in mid-January, people in Hong Kong have been scrambling get hold of surgical masks, which apart from frequent hand-washing, is believed to be the best defense for warding off infection.

The demand for the protection gear reached fever point when supply began to dwindle, and residents started surfing the internet for suppliers, inevitably setting off signals to unscrupulous groups to take advantage of their desperation.
Hongkongers cast off surgical masks for this new type of face covers
As early as Jan. 31, Hong Kong police had warned of scammers offering face masks online. At that time, the losses incurred by the victims were relatively low, ranging from a few hundred to $1,000.

But on Feb. 6, the scammers appeared to have become bolder, with a total haul of $580,000 being collected from victims. Six men and two women behind the scam were reportedly arrested.

A week later, the amount lost jumped up to $1.1 million, with more than 300 complainants. The amounts involved ranged between $100 and $250,000. Ten men and two women were arrested.

The latest incident involved about 100 Hongkongers being lured into paying up to $400 for each box of face masks. The total amount lost to what was said to be an organized gang on Facebook, was $60,000.

In Singapore, similar scams have been reported, with a gang of swindlers reportedly using various e-commerce platforms and online channels such as Gumtree, Facebook Marketplace, Carousell, WhatsApp and Telegram.
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