Everyone from at-home consumers to government agencies has been trying to procure personal protective equipment, especially N95 face masks, since the pandemic began — which has led to a massive rise in fraudulent activity.
One of the latest major examples comes from Houston, where two men have been charged after allegedly defrauding a foreign government out of more than $317 million in non-existent N95 masks.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas said Nov. 24 that two Houston-area men attempted to fraudulently sell 50 million 3M N95 respirators to an unnamed foreign government. The charges are based on two major issues: those face masks didn’t exist, and the men and their brokers allegedly negotiated a total price that was five times higher than 3M’s publicly listed price. Reuters reported that the government targeted was Australia’s New South Wales state.
According to the DOJ, the men, ages 46 and 55, expected to personally obtain up to $275 million from the scheme, but authorities were able to disrupt the transaction before it could be completed. Authorities took one of the men into custody on Nov. 20, and the other turned himself in four days later.
If convicted, each of them faces up to 5 years in prison for conspiracy and up to 20 years for each of the two counts of wire fraud. And that’s in addition to a possible $250,000 maximum fine for each of the charges.
One of the men reportedly has no criminal history, while the other, Areal Doolittle, was recently charged in a separate fraud case. Identified by the Houston Chronicle as the head of energy company Sariel Petroleum, Doolittle allegedly ran a company that used fake letters, email addresses and a bank account under the name of a Chevron-affiliated company to dupe companies into doing business with it. Twenty-one investors were defrauded of $1.2 million in that case, which is scheduled for trial on Dec. 14.