Coronavirus: Buyers of 'cheap' masks lose $122,000 to overseas scam

A screenshot of the Carousell listing by "diywallpaper" selling surgical face masks. PHOTO: CAROUSELL

SINGAPORE (THE NEW PAPER) - Just $12 for a box of 50 surgical masks?

For at least 600 people, the offer was too good to resist, especially when prices had shot up by more than seven times from 20 cents a mask to $1.50 because of the coronavirus outbreak.

They forked out about $189,000 in total, with some ordering up to 4,000 boxes with the intention of reselling them.

They had been attracted by a listing on online marketplace Carousell by a seller with the username "diywallpaper". The New Paper understands she is a woman in her 20s.

Advertising her wares as "Cheapest 50pc surgical mask three-ply S$12", she claimed that other users were "selling this mask at a much higher price using my photos".

She said the masks were made in Turkey and shipped from Turkey and the Netherlands.

In the end, none of the buyers received the boxes of masks they had ordered, and more than a hundred police reports were made against the seller.

But it seems that the seller might have been a victim of a scam.

Confirming the reports made against the seller, the police told TNP that investigations showed she had made payments of about $122,000 to the alleged suppliers.

But the masks were never delivered, sparking concern among the buyers who demanded a refund of their money.

The police said they will not be taking further action against the seller as there is insufficient evidence that she was out to cheat the buyers.

Several victims said the seller distributor has created several groups on social media to give her side of the story.

In an explanation on a WhatsApp group seen by TNP, she said that she had been "scammed" and made a police report on Feb 19.

"I did not pocket a single cent and have been trying my very best to pay back. If I had any intention to cheat you guys of the money, I would not have disclosed this information in the first place," she said.

The police said the seller has refunded some of her buyers using the remaining $67,000 from what she collected.

TNP understands this was supposed to be her profit from the deals.

A buyer who wanted to be known as Ms Heng, 27, said she had paid $2,400 for 200 boxes via PayNow for her company.

She said the seller had used the name of a store in Kovan where buyers could collect their purchases.

"Before paying, I went to the store to verify that it was real. It looked reliable," said Ms Heng, who added that the store employees were aware that the seller was dealing in masks.

She then introduced a friend, who resells masks, as the prices were very low. The friend bought masks from the seller and paid $24,000 as a deposit for 4,000 boxes.

When she was informed that the deal had broken down, Ms Heng said: "I felt so bad. I planned to pay my friend back slowly because I had recommended the seller."

However, her friend was one of the lucky ones to get a refund from the seller.

"It is a lesson not to be too trusting. There is no way for us to seek redress," Ms Heng said.

Another buyer, who wanted to known as Mr Tan, told TNP that he paid over $2,500 for a few hundred boxes of masks for his company.

He said: "It was so cheap. $12 for a box was one of the lowest prices I had seen.

"I felt it was genuine since she was contactable. She had a lot of buyers and provided updates, and said we could collect from a store in Kovan.

"But the price was too good to be true."

He said the seller has since given him a partial refund.

Mr Tan, who is in his 40s, said he felt sorry for the woman if she had been scammed.

"Lots of people have paid her in small amounts, but someone is getting away with a lot of money," he added.

Multiple online communities were created by the buyers to share updates on police investigations and their negotiations with the seller for refunds.

In one message chain seen by TNP, some buyers have banded together with a legal consultant to try to engage a lawyer to negotiate a settlement with the seller.


Lawyer Ravinderpal Singh, a director at Kalco Law, said there are practical difficulties in conducting an investigation when a scam is perpetrated from abroad.

"Singaporean officers can't just land on foreign soil to investigate as they have no jurisdiction, and would have to liaise with the foreign authorities for assistance," Mr Singh added.

Ms Su Lin Tan, chief of staff and vice-president of operations at Carousell, said the platform is aware of the reports on online fraud and have been working closely with the authorities to address these cases.

She said: "We strongly discourage users from communicating outside of the Carousell app and urge them to be extra vigilant when shopping on any e-commerce platform."

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