In Russia, scammers exploit pandemic to launder money using medical goods purchases

Elena Fabrichnaya
FILE PHOTO: Protection class FFP2 respirator masks are pictured inside a pharmacy, amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, in Barcelona

By Elena Fabrichnaya

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The coronavirus pandemic has spawned a new form of financial fraud in Russia, with people using medical goods purchases as a front for money laundering scams, the central bank said on Thursday.

Suspicious money transfers out of the country from domestic banks were at a record low last year, said Dmitry Skobelkin, deputy governor of the Bank of Russia, but some fraudulent practices had risen since the onset of the health crisis.

Like many countries around the world, Russia imposed lockdown restrictions to limit the spread of the coronavirus, leaving many businesses, including banks, forced to communicate with customers online.

Skobelkin said banks were afraid of using unprotected video communication to confirm customers' identities. Instead they used other options but reported cases of people faking passports photos.

"With the development of our, so to speak, intellectual automation, it's quite easy to fake everything at home that is needed for identification," said Skobelkin.

The authorities have ordered citizens across the country to observe social distancing and wear medical masks and gloves when out in public, as restrictions gradually begin to be eased.

Skobelkin said there was a small number of suspicious foreign purchases of protective gear.

"In one case we had to freeze 91 million roubles ($1.3 million) at an account of a bank, which I won't name, that was supposedly to be used to buy masks at the beginning of the pandemic," he said.

The masks were not supplied and the suspects are now under investigation, Skobelkin added.

Suspicious money transfers to foreign destinations stood at 63.5 billion roubles last year.

Central bank data also showed that the number of suspicious cash-out transactions last year fell nearly two-fold to 95 billion roubles compared with 2018.

($1 = 70.7028 roubles)


(Reporting by Elena Fabrichnaya; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber/Alexander Marrow; Editing by Katya Golubkova and Lisa Shumaker)

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