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Pair sentenced for profiteering from Covid pandemic

|News, Fraud and economic crime

Two men have today been sentenced at Birmingham Crown Court for fraudulently selling unauthorised COVID-19 test kits in 2020 whilst the country was in the grip of the pandemic.

Ron Huss-Smickler, 41 from Birmingham, and Steven Lawrence Beckford, 39 from Edgbaston, purchased thousands of non-certified COVID-19 test kits 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.

The pair, who sold the unauthorised test kits in the UK, Europe and the USA, misled 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.

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 months sentence, suspended for two years. Both men have also been disqualified from acting as a company director.

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.”

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.”

Notes to editors

  • Sarah Melo is a Specialist Prosecutor for the Serious, Economic Organised Crime and International Division of the Crown Prosecution Service
  • Ron Huss-Smickler (17/08/81) pleaded guilty to fraud, contrary to section 1 of the fraud act 2006 and was sentenced to 18 months in jail.
  • Steven Lawrence Beckford (04/12/83) pleaded guilty to producing an unsafe product contrary to regulations 5 and 20 of the general product safety regulations 2005 and was sentenced to four months suspended for two years.

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