Criminals are advertising surgical face masks on dark web marketplaces as they look to cash in on a global supply shortage resulting from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The face masks – which could easily be fake – were spotted by Digital Shadows, an online risk management company. 

China is the world’s largest global supplier of medical face masks, making around 80% of face masks worldwide, the company say.

Because of the pandemic, production and exports from China have been severely limited over the past few months.

Daily production in China soared from about 10 million at the start of February to 115 million at the end of the month, according to the New York Times.

This has put a massive strain on manufacturers worldwide, creating a market for fake products and fraudulent listings.

Read more: ‘Be considerate’ – UK shoppers urged to stop panic buying during pandemic

Listings for face masks on Empire market (Source: Digital Shadows’ Shadow Search)

The masks were found on Empire, a dark web digital marketplace similar to eBay, which is notorious for selling illegal drugs, fake designer goods, and hacking tools. 

The ‘dark web’ is the name used for a collection of websites and forums that can’t be accessed by conventional search engines and browsers like Google Chrome or Internet Explorer.

Digital Shadows found several vendors offering face masks. One listing offers 2,000 boxes of surgical face masks for $6,500 (£5300).

All the listings specifically mention Covid-19 or variations of coronavirus, in a clear attempt to exploit the ongoing pandemic. 

Listings for face masks on Empire market (Source: Digital Shadows’ Shadow Search)

“Vendors like these typically engage in the sale of illicit drugs, but have clearly seen a market opportunity to branch out into medical equipment,” the company said.

Whilst the images show surgical masks, it’s impossible to tell if a customer would even receive real medical-grade hygiene equipment. 

Fake goods

Website selling discounted face masks (Source: Digital Shadows)

Digital Shadows also found that away from the dark web, criminal enterprises are looking to scam anxious customers.

Hundreds of websites have been set up recently offering cheap or heavily discounted face masks and equipment.

Even if some products on sale are real, in many cases the masks won’t even exist – and once enough unsuspecting users have parted with cash, the website and the scammers will vanish.

The US has more than 2,700 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 54 deaths so far.

In the UK, 37,746 people have been tested for coronavirus and the total number of confirmed cases has reached 1,140. As of 15 March, there have been at least 35 deaths.

Read more: Coronavirus — follow live updates from around the world

Face masks and personal protective equipment like visors and gowns are vital for the safety of medical staff but have little effect on preventing healthy individuals from infection.

The World Health Organisation recommends face masks shouldn’t be used unless caring for an individual with a suspected Covid-19 infection.

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