Birmingham fraudsters sold uncertified Chinese Covid tests to US homeland security officer

A US homeland security officer posed as a member of the public and bought an uncertified Chinese Covid test from two Birmingham fraudsters

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Two Birmingham men have been sentenced to jail after fraudulently selling uncertified Covid-19 test kits to the public and medical professionals at the start of the pandemic.

Ron Huss-Smickler, from the city centre, and Steven Lawrence Beckford, from Edgbaston, purchased thousands of non-certified coronavirus tests from ‘Alibaba’ - a Chinese shopping website - in March 2020. The men then sold them online through their business ‘Be Corona Safe’ in the hopes of making large profits.

When a GP purchased a number of tests, the men believed they could sell more widely to the NHS, prompting Beckford to state: “Good news Team! We have just closed a deal with an NHS GP Practice for testing kits!  So now we can officially say ‘We provide Medical Supplies to the NHS’ 🏆

But both Huss-Smickler and Beckford were arrested in June 2020, after the National Crime Agency and a US Homeland Security officer were able to buy their products on a dark web marketplace.

Police investigations showed that the pair had sold the unauthorised test kits in the UK, Europe and the USA - misleading customers into believing that the kits had regulatory approval. The tests, which were intended for professional use only, were split down into individual kits to be passed off as approved for home use.

The pair maximised profits by creating false instructions pamphlets and adding fake CE markings purporting the kits met the European Conformity requirements when in fact there was no evidence that the test kits even worked when used in the way they were advertised.

They changed their trading name to avoid scrutiny from e-commerce platforms and online banks, who had previously warned them of profiteering and selling medical equipment without verification.

Undeterred, Huss-Smickler and Beckford continued to circumvent the law, even lying on a formal application to the Medicine and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) for Emergency Use Authorisation in an attempt to legitimise the test kits.

Birmingham fraudstesr Ron Huss-Smickler and Steven Lawrence-Beckford sold uncertified Covid-19 testsBirmingham fraudstesr Ron Huss-Smickler and Steven Lawrence-Beckford sold uncertified Covid-19 tests
Birmingham fraudstesr Ron Huss-Smickler and Steven Lawrence-Beckford sold uncertified Covid-19 tests

Despite the MHRA refusing authorisation due to the early test kits not performing as they should, the pair continued their distribution claiming they were ‘currently in for approval within the UK health authority’.

Communication between the two showed they were motivated by the prospect of making vast amounts of money and discussed raising the prices of the test kits far beyond what they had paid, hoping to sell a further 10 million test kits globally amid the rising pandemic. The defendants were arrested in June 2020 by the National Crime Agency before their plan to make huge profits could be realised.

Huss-Smickler was sentenced to 18 months in jail and Beckford received a four month sentence, suspended for two years. Both men have also been disqualified from acting as a company director.

‘There is no evidence that the test kits worked when used in the way they were advertised’

Sarah Melo, Specialist Prosecutor from the CPS said:“The defendants quickly spotted an opportunity in the early stages of the pandemic, which was in reality an attempt to capitalise on the fears of the general public amid a global crisis. They carried on their business aware that what they were doing was wrong, and their stated intention was to make huge profits.

“There was no evidence that the test kits worked when used in the way they were advertised, but this did not deter them selling them without any regard to the welfare of their customers.

“We work closely with investigators such as the MHRA and the NCA and will not hesitate to prosecute where there is evidence of fraud.”

MHRA message on coronavirus test kitsMHRA message on coronavirus test kits
MHRA message on coronavirus test kits

‘They sought every possible opportunity to profit from the unrest and panic’

Ty Surgeon, NCA Branch Commander Midlands, Wales and West region, said:  “These men were organised criminals who preyed upon people’s fears, at the very early stages of the coronavirus pandemic when there was uncertainty and resources were scarce. They knew that their venture was exploitative and illegal, but still sought every possible opportunity to profit from the unrest and panic that was sweeping the UK at the time.

“This is by no means the only incident of fraud and opportunistic criminal activity seen during the coronavirus pandemic. Together with partners, both here and abroad, we will continue to investigate and hold those responsible to account.”

‘We are committed to disrupting transnatioanl criminal organisations’

HSI London Attaché Tim Hemker, said: “Homeland Security Investigations is committed to identifying and disrupting transnational criminal organizations that engage in fraudulent schemes and practices to ensure bad actors are held accountable for their actions.

‘We would advise anyone buying COVID-19 testing kits online to always buy from a registered charity’

Dr Alison Cave, Chief Safety Officer of the MHRA, said:“We welcome the NCA’s investigation into illegal COVID-19 testing kits. Lateral flow devices played an essential role in the pandemic response and proved to be highly effective at detecting COVID-19 in people.

“We would advise anyone buying COVID-19 testing kits online to always buy from a registered pharmacy, avoid suspicious-looking websites and read online reviews where possible. If you have any problems or concerns while using a COVID-19 testing kit or suspect the testing kit to be fake or tampered with, please report it to the MHRA immediately via the Coronavirus Yellow Card website.”