SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — A Michigan man has been charged with wire fraud for allegedly operating a fake website that purportedly sold N95 masks but never delivered them, according federal prosecutors.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California on Tuesday unsealed charges against Rodney L. Stevenson II for his operation of an e-commerce website that allegedly scammed people seeking to buy N95 masks. Three of the victims live in the San Francisco Bay Area, including one hospital worker.READ MORE: Gym Owners With Huge Weight Off Shoulder as COVID Restrictions Finally Lifted
According to the complaint, Stevenson, 24, of Muskegon, Michigan, set up a limited liability company – EM General – in September 2019 that purported to sell an available inventory of “Anti-Viral N95” respirator masks. Stevenson also created fake officers for the company, using stock photos from the internet to create a page of fake management staff, the complaint said.
EM General’s website falsely claimed to have the masks “in stock” and available for sale and shipment during the shortage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, prosecutors said in a press release. Customers bought masks from the website, sometimes paying more than $40 a mask, and after customers made their first purchase, the defendant offered additional masks to those customers at discounted prices, according to the complaint.
Customers bought what they thought were N95 masks but never received them, sometimes receiving follow-up emails from EM General with false excuses about supply and shipping issues. The complaint also alleges some customers ended up getting cheaply-made fabric masks that did not comply with the N95 standard.READ MORE: Bay Area Heat Wave: Soaring Temperatures To Strain Power Grid
Stevenson was arrested at his home in Muskegon, Michigan and made his initial appearance before the U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids. He was released on supervised bond and his next scheduled appearance was set for May 18.
The case is being prosecuted by the Special Prosecutions Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California. The San Francisco and Detroit Divisions of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the FBI’s San Francisco and Detroit field offices were conducting a joint investigation.
“Hospitals, healthcare providers and everyday people are understandably anxious to obtain N95 masks, N99 filters and other PPE,” said U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California David L. Anderson in a prepared statement. “The criminal element is always ready to prey on fear and uncertainty, and it is all too easy to lie over the internet. While sheltering in place, Americans are shopping on the internet like never before. The complaint alleges a consumer’s nightmare of fake webpages and false promises.”
“The United States Postal Inspection Service has a long history of successfully investigating complex fraud cases,” said U.S. Postal Inspection Service San Francisco Division Postal Inspector in Charge Rafael E. Nuñez. “Anyone or any organization engaging in deceptive practices, especially if they are attempting to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic emergency, should know they will not go undetected and will be held accountable.”MORE NEWS: Cal Fire Units Contain Brush Fire in Santa Rosa
If convicted, Stevenson would face a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison, five years of probation, and a fine of $1,000,000.