Scammers prey on the desperate in Covid-plagued Mexico

Demand for oxygen has skyrocketed, resulting in long queues outside businesses offering to fill cylinders. PHOTO: AFP

MEXICO CITY (AFP) - Fake vaccines, dubious coronavirus tests, non-existent oxygen tanks - scammers are preying on desperate Mexican coronavirus patients and their relatives as the pandemic stretches the country's health system to the limit.

After her brother became the latest member of the family to fall ill with Covid-19, Ms Aracely Becerril went online to search of an oxygen cylinder - an increasingly precious commodity.

Demand for oxygen has skyrocketed as a growing number of people battle the virus at home, resulting in long queues outside businesses offering to fill cylinders. Ms Becerril contacted a purported company on Facebook that offered tanks for several hundred dollars each. Even though she suspected it might be a fraud, the 42-year-old Mexico City housewife made the requested bank deposit. She never heard from them again.

"I was very desperate. They're abusers!" she said. Such offers are multiplying as the crisis worsens, said Ms Sandra Garcia, an official with Mexico City's cyber police division.

"They're selling face masks, antibacterial gel and even, most alarmingly, coronavirus tests or vaccines" of dubious quality or which the buyer never receives, Garcia told AFP.

Growing desperation

Mexico has officially registered around 1.8 million coronavirus cases and more than 155,000 deaths, one of the world's highest fatality tolls. Both new infections and deaths have set daily records this month, leaving hospitals overwhelmed and patients struggling to find treatment.

The country began mass immunisation on Dec 24 using the vaccine developed by US drugs giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, with priority given to front-line health workers. Like many nations, however, it is struggling to acquire enough doses.

The vaccines are being administered for free and are not available to buy through legal channels. But they are purportedly being offered for sale in chat groups on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, along with supposed shots from US drugmaker Moderna and Britain's AstraZeneca for up to US$180 (S$240) a dose.

Drugs such as the steroid dexamethasone, proven to reduce coronavirus mortality but available only with a prescription in Mexico, are also being offered.

These fraudsters try to obtain passwords and other personal information or secure advance payments for a non-existent product, Mexico City's cyber police warned this month. "Once they achieve their objective, they no longer answer, or block the citizen from being able to contact them," it said.

Mexico's health regulator, Cofepris, has also issued a warning about the illegal sale of purported Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. The military recently reported the theft of several vaccines doses in a hospital in central Mexico, presumably by an employee.

In Mexico City alone, the district attorney's office and the non-profit Citizen Council for Security and Justice have received at least 26 complaints of alleged fraud linked to purported sales of vaccines and oxygen tanks.

Under-reporting means that the real number of cases "is always much more", said Citizen Council president Salvador Guerrero. These criminals "are part of gangs sometimes formed by members of the same family that use scripts to trick people," he said.

Mexico is not the only country facing the problem. In December, Interpol warned its 194 member countries to prepare for "an onslaught of all types of criminal activity" linked to coronavirus vaccines.

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