MASKS SCAM Mick
Interpol are investigating a serious con that deprived German doctors and health workers from 10 million masks needed in the fight against Covid-19. Image Credit: Twitter and Reuters

Like millions of others around the world, Gulf News Foreign Correspondent Mick O’Reilly is currently under Covid-19 lockdown. This is what life is like in social isolation in Ireland, where there are strict rules about who is allowed out, where, and under limited circumstances.

DAY 18

Thursday April 16, 9am

IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE?

MASKS SCAM Mick
Interpol are investigating a serious con that deprived German doctors and health workers from 10 million masks needed in the fight against Covid-19. Image Credit: Twitter and Reuters

SOPHISTICATED FRAUD THREATENS SAFETY OF HEALTH WORKERS

There are some people who will go lower than a snake’s belly to make a quick profit at anybody’s expense.

And when the scam targets health workers badly in need of PPE – personal protective equipment – those behind it are the lowest of the low.

And right now, Interpol – the European police agency – are trying to crack an international Covid-19 fraud investigation.

The case involves a German company with offices in Hamburg and Zurich who were contracted by German state officials to purchase 10 million face masks with an approximate value of €15 million – about Dh60 million.

FIGHTING THE PANDEMIC

These masks were required to help deal with the current pandemic, and the company was forwarded €15 million to purchase the masks.

It had hoped to purchase the masks from a Spanish company it had a good relationship with, but this wasn’t possible given the current demand for face masks.

This German company was then put in contact with a Dutch supplier through an Irish intermediary, and placed an order for 11 million masks.

However, unknown to the German company, the order was made with a fraudulent entity that had cloned the website and email address of the legitimate Dutch company.

The conmen had created a cloned website ever so much like the real supplier’s – right down to the branding, style, typography and design.

REELING IN THE CON

Following contractual talks, a down payment of €1.5 million was paid by the German company to the Irish company’s bank account based in Roscommon for the delivery of the first 7.7 million masks.

A further payment of €880,000 was paid to the fraudulent Dutch company’s bank account.

On 27 March, representatives from the German and Irish companies met in Amsterdam to inspect and oversee the handover of the shipment. This shipment never materialised.

They then attended the offices of the Dutch company and were told that no shipment was ever ordered or assigned.

INTERPOL ON THE TRAIL

A joint investigation was launched by authorities in Germany, the Netherlands and Ireland supported by Interpol.

Prompt action by the Dutch authorities tracked down the €880,000 which had been transferred by the German company.

Of this, €498,000 was transferred to a UK account and onward to a Nigerian account. This money has been recovered.

A further €125,000 was transferred into another Dutch account.

DUTCH SPRING INTO ACTION

On 6 April, Dutch police arrested two men for alleged fraud, falsification and money laundering in connection with the €880,000. They appeared in court last Thursday.

Irish investigators worked to freeze the €1.5 million in the Irish bank account.

Documents and electronic devices were obtained by police, and these are currently being forensically examined.

Further cyber inquiries uncovered that the scammers had captured the address of a real Dutch company and opened a bank account at the same Dutch bank as the real company in a compromised similar name.

The case initially came to the attention of banks who alerted the relevant authorities in each jurisdiction.

The Interpol investigation is continuing.

If and when these scammers are caught, they need to spend a long time in prison. Masks cave lives. When these conmen have don is nothing short of public-health sabotage.

PANNING THE PANDEMIC

AND THE BONUS ROUND IS MICROBIOLOGY…

Mick Blog
Jay Flynn missed on hosting his local pub quiz – now he’s hosting one a virtual pub quiz and tens of thousands are taking part. Image Credit: YouTube/Virtual Pub Quiz

If there’s one thing that this lockdown has thought is all is that online services play a huge part now in keeping us all entertained. While our traditional watering holes and gathering spots have been closed, we can still gather online.

Every week, there was pub quiz for the Greenfield pub in a small town in Lancashire in the northeast of England. But because of the pandemic, the pub closed.

Jay Flynn planned a small online quiz for the regulars. That was the plan. When it came to quiz day, some half a million people had expressed an interest in joining in, and more than 200,000 actually took part.

By setting the Facebook event to ‘public’, Flynn, a sales advisor, inadvertently launched a global phenomenon.

SPIRALLED AND WENT VIRAL

“I was expecting maybe 30 or 40 people to turn up for it,” he explained. “It was just surreal, we had over a couple of hundred thousand turn up to the first one, and it has just spiralled from there.”

Since that first event on March 26, Flynn’s virtual pub quiz has accrued 111,000 subscribers on YouTube, where he hosts it, along with more than 135,000 likes on Facebook where he publicises it, through ‘public’ events.

Asked why his quiz has garnered so much attention, he said: “That’s the million dollar question. Even people who are doing virtual pub quizzes themselves are getting in touch, asking how are you doing so well, how have you gotten so many subscribers? I honestly don’t know. For whatever reason, when people shared it in the early stages it obviously captured the public imagination.”

While he makes clear that nobody is expected to donate, he set up a JustGiving page for the NHS Charities Together for those that want to give something. His initial target was £15,000 (Dh68,700). Once again, he slightly underestimated how successful his virtual project would be.

“I had to move the original target within the first few hours,” he said. “I’ve set it at £150,000 and I’m leaving it at that, if it goes over that, that’s beyond my wildest dreams.” As of Tuesday evening, the total stands at more than £93,000.

“We’re all looking out for each other, we’re all helping out where we can,” he said, adding the community of his town, Darwen, had now turned into a much bigger community on his online channels.

“Trying to write 50 questions a week and finding that balance is the biggest challenge,” he said.

“It’s making sure the quizzes are relevant and keeping everybody entertained across all knowledge levels.”

And he’s now hosting quizzes on Thursdays and Saturdays. Here’s the link to the YouTube channel.

WHO NEEDS EMAIL?

Mick Blog
Belgian bus company MIVB has taken to delivering messages and letters during the coronavirus lockdown in Brussels. Image Credit: Twitter

So if you’re in lockdown in Belgium and can’t make it to the post office to send a message to someone, there’s no need to worry.

The Brussels local transport company MIVB is to carry messages for friends and relatives living in and around the Belgian capital.

The initiative is intended to allow them to contact and support people in these weird times.

Everybody can send a written or spoken message via Facebook messenger. All they have to do is include the name and the address of the addressee and MIVB will do the rest.

TEARING YOU HAIR OUT IN LOCKDOWN

Mick Blog
What lockdown? Irish sheep farmer Donie Anderson has become an online sensation after a video of him using a sheep shears to cut his own hair went viral. Image Credit: Facebook

One of the first things I can’t wait to do when this lockdown is over is to go to a barber for a trim. It’s not that there’s much going on on top, it’s just that I want to get what little hair I have back in order. I won’t, however, be taking a leaf out of the playbook of Dublin sheep farmer Donie Anderson.

Donie became a Facebook sensation last week by posting a video of himself cutting his own wayward tresses with a pair of shears up the Dublin mountains.

As he cuts his hair in the video, he remarks: “that’s the last time that’ll blow in the wind for a while.”

The video has been viewed more than 250,000 times so far. 

As Covid-19 lockdown continues many people are literally tearing their hair out because they can’t get to the now-closed barbers or hairdressers for a much-needed trim or colour for their greying barnet.

However, the 62 year old farmer is not sure what all the fuss is about as he normally cuts his hair with a shears a few times a year.

Speaking from the Dublin mountains where he is currently lambing 130 ewes, he said: “I normally shear it at Christmas but there were bad colds around then so I left it. The weather was warm today so I cut it, using the phone screen as a mirror. It’s normally a bit neater.”

And no, his first cut wasn’t the deepest!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY KING FILIP!

Mick Blog
King Filip of the Belgians turned 60 on Wednesday. It was a quiet affair. Image Credit: Twitter

I am turning 60 in September, and I have long said that I want to spend in in a villa on a Greek island, and don’t want a party per se but would rather have friends and family come and go for the three months I’m there.

That was before coronavirus came along. Who knows what will happen come September.

But on Wednesday, King Filip of the Belgians turned 60. Normally, this would be cause for a large party. But Belgium is under lockdown and social distancing and all of that, so it was a quiet affair with his close family at his primary residence of Laken Castle in Brussels.

Filip ascended the throne of the Belgians seven years ago, when old King Albert abdicated on the national holiday in 2013.

IS AUSTRIA REALLY READY TO RE-OPEN?

Mick Blog
A vending machine in Saltzburg has had its usual confectionery contents replaced with masks, gloves and other coronavirus-related personal care products. Image Credit: Twitter

I am enthused after almost three weeks of lockdown that a number of countries across Europe are at least taking the first very tentative measures to try and re-open their nations and get life back to normal as much as possible – even if it’s under very strict monitoring.

It shows that there is light at the end of what has been a long and dark tunnel.

And Austria is looking at re-opening some small businesses and allowing greater movement.

But I am worried. According to recent news reports from the Alpine nation, the nation is estimated to have at least twice as many new coronavirus infections than officially reported.

A recent study from the SORA Institute there found that 0.32 per cent of those surveyed in the first week of April tested positive for the new coronavirus.

SORA said it was the first such study in the EU to better understand the virus’ prevalence.

The result means some 28,500 of Austria’s close to nine million people were likely affected, the institute said, compared to the official statistic of up to 12,200 coronavirus infections for that April week.

SORA said taking into account deviations, between 10,200 and 67,400 people in total could have been affected. The study surveyed 1,544 people.

Maybe it might be wiser to slow any opening up until all of the numbers are straight. The last thing anybody needs is a second round of infections and lockdowns.

MORE PAIN IN SPAIN?

Mick Blog
Social distancing will probably be enforced on the packed beaches of Spain, especially in popular resorts like Benidorm. Image Credit: Twitter

As I said here before, I live in Spain for part of the year. The Canary Island, though, are nowhere near as popular or as crowded as beaches on the mainland of Spain.

And although the national government in Madrid has taken the first steps to reopen the nation after six weeks of very tight lockdown, it has said it will strictly maintain social distancing rules on beaches.

In an interview published this in El Pais, Tourism Minister Reyes Maroto said the government did not know when the borders would be reopened, saying it will depend on how “the health crisis evolves”.

“It is very important that we continue to follow health recommendations, we must keep up what we are doing now, washing our hands, keeping social distance... even on the beach,” she added when asked if access to beaches would be limited once the lockdown ends.

“Until there is a vaccine nothing will be the way it was before. Gatherings will have to have limitations to maintain an adequate safety distance,” she added.

Spain is the world’s second-most visited country after France and tourism is crucial for the domestic economy, making up nearly 12 per cent of gross domestic product. It hit a record of tourist arrivals for the seventh year in a row last year, with nearly 84 million visitors.

Now it is one of the hardest-hit nations in the world with more than 18,700 fatalities form Covid-19 by Wednesday afternoon.

ONE BIG WARM WELCOME

I just love this story. And it shows too how important friends, family and neighbours are now during this time when more than half of the world’s population is under some form of lockdown or restrictions of movement.

Rhode is a small village in County Offaly in the centre of Ireland. So when 84-year-old Mary Joe Kilmurray slipped and broke her hip six weeks ago and had to be admitted to hospital, things were bad.

Mick Blog
Day 17 in lock down in Ireland Image Credit: Agencies/Social media

Then they turned worse when she contracted Covid-19 in hospital – the virus preys on the elderly and infirm.

But Mary Joe is a fighter. And virtually the who village turned out on Wednesday – keeping the social distances of two metres of course – to welcome her home.

She was over the moon. And promptly invited them all over to drop in to tea and cakes – when the pandemic is over of course.

Lovely story. Just lovely. It makes you feel good – and we need more of that more than ever now.

A YEN TO HELP

Yen Mick blog
This letter was sent to all the employees of a Tokyo company and contained 30,000 Yen (Dh1,250) in cash to tide employees over during this difficult time. Image Credit: Twitter

Here’s a nice story that makes you wish you worked for this Japanese company. As it is, there are countless stories of Japan’s workers working long hours, not taking holidays, facing long commutes and laboring in a very strict culture of service to employers.

Not this particular company. This is the letter it sent to its employees:

Hey everybody,

Thank you very much for making the difficult effort of meeting with clients and going to job sites every day, even as the coronavirus crisis is ongoing. We are providing support funds to be used for the reasons listed below.

1. To show our appreciation for your hard work for our company during this unsettling period.

2. To aid you in purchasing coronavirus preventive supplies such as masks and hand sanitiser, which have been rapidly rising in price.

3. Because good health requires taking proper care of both your physical and mental condition, please use this money to purchase groceries to cook, rent videos to watch, or otherwise make your time at home more enjoyable.

In difficult situations like the current one, let’s all keep looking ahead to better things to come.”

And it came with 30,000 Yen in cash.

Nice. Really nice.

MEME OF THE DAY

Mick meme
Meme of the day Image Credit: Social media

This meme was shared with me on Facebook by my friend, Noel, who lives in Brampton just outside Toronto. Thanks for sharing at a time when many of us now work from home.

THE LOCKDOWN DIET

Day 18 of Dr Joshi’s Holistic Detox: “21 days to a healthier slimmer you – for life.”

The finish line is in sight and the coffee maker is out from under the counter. If there was a timer for the brew it would already be set for 8:30AM on Saturday morning.

So in the meanwhile I have to make do with a filet of fresh salmon pan fried in a touch of olive oil, capers and lemon juice, served with roasted parsnip and carrots.

I think one of the hardest things about this detox has been that there is little or no sauce with any of the dishes – and that adds to the perception that the food is plain and boring. It’s not, because I can add spices. But it’s the perception. And I still miss coffee. Roll on Saturday morning!

Oh yeah, and there’s the weigh-in at the end of Friday too.

THE STOCK SHOCK

If you’ve been following this particular item for the past 18 days, you’ll know that I have been mulling investing in some oil stocks in recent days.

I was tempted in the lead up to the Opec+ deal deal reached a week ago to invest in some oil-related socks on the London Stock Exchange. Ultimately, I decided not to.

And as things turned out, my layman’s approach has been right. Despite that Opec+ deal, oil is trading really low. According to Reuters,oil prices sank on Wednesday after the US reported its biggest weekly build of crude oil inventories on record, while forecasts showed global demand crumbling to its worst levels in a quarter of a century.

We’re in lockdown. No one is driving. No one is flying. Factories are shut. The weather is getting warmer. Economic activity is in hibernation. There’s an oil glut. Yes, oil levels will be low for a while – but it remains a good bet after the summer. And who knows whether Gulf News will still have me writing this, pretending that I have £10,000 (about Dh45,000) to invest in stocks and shares.

A quick reminder that there’s no minimum amount of shares I can buy, I have to but at the end of a day’s trading, and I don’t pay brokerage fees. And it’s just play money – like Monopoly but without the Go To Jail card.

I entered trading on Wednesday with a portfolio and come cash in hand was worth £1,1198.13.

I am into Just Eat Takeaway for 250 shares. With people locked down, they’re ordering more takeaway food and fed up of cooking. And I also hold 100 shares of Totally, a healthcare company that provides support services to the National Health Service. Hey, if you’re in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic and run off your feet, then you need support services.

That’s my logic.

It was a mixed session, one that saw me decrease my pretend wealth ever so marginally, down £15 – which is better than a kick in the pants. This is how I stand now

Net worth: £11,183.63

Just East Takeaway, 100 shares: £7820.00

Totally, 250 shares: £2905.50

Cash in hand £458.13

% Gain + 11.2%

£ Gain +£1,185.63

I will stay put for now. But I’m happy I avoided oil.

The International Energy Agency on Wednesday forecast an oil demand dive of 29 million barrels per day in April to levels not seen in 25 years and said no output cut could fully offset the near-term falls facing the market.

“There is no feasible agreement that could cut supply by enough to offset such near-term demand losses,” the IEA said in its monthly report. “However, the past week’s achievements are a solid start.”

If I am to continue this, then I would get into oil by late summer. That’s when we know where we stand and things should be picking up again. And demand means higher prices. But what do I know…

COVIDIOTS, YOBS AND GOONS

Here’s my daily collection of covidiots, serving as a reminder that low-wattage lightbulbs aren’t the only things that are dim…

SILLY MID-OFFS AND STUMP CHUMPS

Not out! But 17 yobs in the north of England wouldn’t know that cricket rule.

The MailOnline reports what police in Preston, Lancashire, had to break up an impromptu game of cricket in a local park. At one stage there were 19 together playing – breaking all of the Covid-19 rules on exercise and social distancing

They said they were ‘bored’ after being spotted by passerby Paul Winstanley, who filmed the cricketers.

When police arrived they handed out lectures on the need to keep apart.

Some of the men are seen sitting on the ground clearly less than two metres apart. Under coronavirus guidelines, group exercise is also outlawed.

Sports therapist Paul spotted them in Preston and tweeted: “Seventeen people enjoying a game of cricket. How stupid can you be...idiots...”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Idiots. Covidiots!

GETTING GOBBY WITH POLICE

What is it about Covid-19 that makes people think they can act like animals during this pandemic lockdown.

There have been several cases over the past month of yobs getting gobby with police – spitting at them and saying they have coronavirus.

The latest case involves a women in her 30s who approached a marked patrol car in a Dublin suburb and began yelling at the officers inside.

When police got out to speak with her, she spat at them and said she had coronavirus.

Honestly, it’s like something from a zombie movie, where people lost their minds.

Get a grip folks. She was hauled off to jail while the officers have to be tested and put into self-isolation for two weeks just in case.

Lockdown? She should be locked up for much longer!

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

I’m not an expert, but I might be able to help you make a bit of sense of this. And we can all get through it together. Isn’t this what this is all about.

Send your questions for me to Readers@gulfnews.com.

That’s it for now. Let’s check in with each other tomorrow. I have used files from Reuters, Twitter and other European media outlets in today’s blog. And remember to stay safe.

Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.