In an interesting case of opportunistic criminal activity, two individuals from Birmingham have been sentenced to jail for their involvement in a fraudulent scheme during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ron Huss-Smickler, 41, and Steven Beckford, 39, took advantage of the scarcity of COVID-19 test kits and embarked on a mission to make millions on the Dark Web markets.
Exploiting the Demand for COV Tests
At a time when COVID-19 test kits were in high demand and short supply, Huss-Smickler and Beckford saw an opportunity to capitalize on the public's fear and desperate need for testing. They turned to the popular Chinese shopping website 'Alibaba' and purchased thousands of non-certified COVID-19 tests, which they then began selling in March 2020 through their business 'Be Corona Safe.'
Deception and Misleading Claims
Operating under the guise of an authorized testing provider, the criminals sold their '15 Minute Rapid Home Self-Testing Kits' for £39.95 in various countries, including the UK, Europe, and the USA. To mislead customers, they falsely claimed that their kits had regulatory approval. Shockingly, even a GP fell victim to their deception, highlighting the effectiveness of their misleading tactics.
Business Strategy Unveiled
Evidence obtained through conversations between the two men uncovered their sinister intentions. As early as January 2020, they discussed profiting from the emerging health crisis. In one conversation, one of them remarked that facemasks seemed like a good opportunity, although it involved capitalizing on tragedy. This chilling insight into their mindset revealed their complete disregard for the welfare of the general public.
Illegal Activities and Attempts to Cover Their Tracks
Huss-Smickler and Beckford were not simply naive entrepreneurs, but organized criminals who understood that their actions were illegal. They demonstrated knowledge of medical legislation and were well aware that they were acting against the law. They even went so far as to discuss marketing their products solely to businesses, hoping to bypass scrutiny and maximize their financial gains.
Modified Kits and Fake Documentation
In their pursuit of profit, the fraudsters resorted to modifying the test kits. They created their own instruction manual, incorporating information from a different manufacturer and Chinese data that they didn't truly comprehend. Their aim was to convince buyers that the kits were legitimate and suitable for home use.
To add a layer of legitimacy, they also produced their own step-by-step guide and instructional video on how to use the tests. These deceitful efforts were part of their grand plan to make huge profits out of a global crisis.
Apprehension and Sentencing
Law enforcement agencies managed to purchase their illicit products on the Dark Web, leading to the arrest of Huss-Smickler and Beckford in June 2020. The case was subsequently brought to Birmingham Crown Court, where the fraudsters faced justice. Huss-Smickler was sentenced to 18 months in prison and was disqualified from being a company director for 10 years. Steven Beckford received a four-month suspended sentence, was placed on probation for two years, and was ordered to complete 100 hours of unpaid community work. Additionally, he is banned from holding a company directorship for five years.
Unveiling the Scale of Their Operation
During the investigation, it was revealed that the two had managed to sell 654 kits and had taken orders for over 700 more before being apprehended. These staggering numbers demonstrate the potential impact their fraudulent activities could have had on individuals relying on the accuracy of these tests.
Collaborative Efforts to Combat Exploitation
The case against Huss-Smickler and Beckford underscores the importance of collaboration between law enforcement agencies and regulatory bodies. The Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA), along with the National Crime Agency (NCA), played a crucial role in uncovering and prosecuting this fraudulent scheme. By working closely with investigators, such as the MHRA and the NCA, the CPS ensures that those who engage in such criminal activities are held accountable.