Gardaí are investigating if a Roscommon businessman was duped into taking part in a €15 million scam carried out by criminals exploiting the demand for face masks during the coronavirus crisis.
The 48-year-old businessman was interviewed voluntarily by gardaí from the National Economic Crime Bureau last Friday. He is suspected of acting as a middleman for a scam transaction for face masks after €1.5 million was traced to an Irish bank account he owned.
The money came from German health authorities desperate to secure face masks for their frontline staff.
During a lengthy interview, the man denied knowingly taking part in the fraud and said he was also a victim. He said he had believed he was taking part in a legitimate business deal and provided gardaí with digital devices which he said would prove his innocence.
Gardaí are currently examining the man’s devices and email accounts to see if they corroborate his story.
Investigators believe his involvement in the transaction is much greater than the use of his bank account. Gardaí have evidence he travelled to Germany and the Netherlands in relation to the transfers of funds that occurred.
The issue is whether the man knew the deal was a scam or believed it was a genuine operation to sell face masks.
If the digital examinations do not back up his version of events he is likely to be arrested for money laundering, an offence that carries a maximum prison term of 14 years.
The suspect, who has no previous convictions, has operated several businesses in the Roscommon area over the years.
The wide-ranging investigation involves police forces and economic intelligence units from Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands in an operation co-ordinated by Interpol. Two people have already appeared before a Dutch court in relation to the scam and further arrests are expected in the next week.
The investigation was launched after German health authorities attempted to purchase 10 million face masks from a cloned website.
There has been massive global demand for face masks since the start of the coronavirus crisis and many countries have had to go to the open market to source supplies.
The German authorities went to purchase €14.7 million worth of masks online from a legitimate company in Spain. However, scammers had cloned the company's website. The scammers told the Germans they could not fulfil the order but could refer them to a trusted seller in Ireland.
The Roscommon man then allegedly referred them to the website of a company in the Netherlands, which later turned out to have also been cloned from that of a legitimate company. Someone claiming to be from the Dutch company agreed to initially supply 1.5 million masks for an upfront payment of €1.5 million. This sum was then transferred to the Irish bank account.
The German authorities were then told the money never arrived and that another €880,000 was required to secure the purchase. This was paid straight into a Dutch bank account.
The €1.5 million in the Irish account has already been frozen and will be returned to Germany, Chief Supt Pat Lordan of the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau has said.