Two Birmingham men have been sentenced after a National Crime Agency investigation uncovered their plans to “capitalise on tragedy” during the pandemic by selling potentially millions of uncertified coronavirus testing kits to medical professionals and the public.
The men, Ron Huss-Smickler, 41, and Steven Beckford, 39, from Birmingham and London, began selling home coronavirus testing kits in March 2020 – the early stages of the pandemic and at the point when testing kits were not readily available.
The tests, marketed as ‘15 Minute Rapid Home Self-Testing Kits’ and priced at £39.95, were advertised on their website www.becoronasafe.com and sold on the dark web. They had originated in China.
Conversations showed that as early as January 2020, the two men discussed how they could make money off of the back of the emerging health crisis, with one telling the other that facemasks seemed a good opportunity, “albeit capitalising on tragedy”.
Officers also recovered documentation from seized digital devices showing their intent to purchase over ten million kits, and details of their plans to sell to the NHS, care homes and foreign governments.
Both Huss-Smickler and Beckford were arrested in June 2020, after the NCA and a US Homeland Security officer were able to buy their products on a dark web marketplace. The kits were illegal in the UK as they were uncertified.
Messages between the men showed that they had knowledge of medical regulations and knew about coronavirus legislation, to the extent that they understood they were acting illegally and took steps to cover their activity.
Although willing to sell to consumers throughout, at one point they discussed marketing their products only to businesses to bypass scrutiny, with Beckford stating: “…We have to get in and get out and make as much money as possible.”
The defendants modified the test kits to enable them to be taken at home and created their own instruction manual, which included information from a completely different manufacturer and Chinese data that they didn’t understand.
They also created their own step by step guide and video on how to take the tests.
Discussions showed that they were expecting to earn up to £150,000 a month and wanted to increase their pricing to £50 a kit at one point, for no other reason than maximizing profit.
Huss-Smickler had also read news articles online around fake PPE and had searched ‘profiteering from coronavirus’.
At one stage the men applied for Emergency Use Authorisation (EUA) from the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency, using fake certification and falsely claiming that they only intended to sell to medics.
Despite being turned down by the MHRA they continued to operate, with records indicating that they changed their company name to avoid detection and prevent further blockages from payment platforms.
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’ ????”
They continued to scout for further business from other medical providers and even left business cards in locations across the London underground.
NCA investigators were able to trace the test kits back to addresses in London and Crewe, and eventually matched the men’s fingerprints with those found on the inside of the test packets.
Evidence indicated that the pair had sold 654 kits and taken orders for over 700 before being arrested.
Both men pleaded guilty on 6th March  at Birmingham Crown Court where they were also sentenced today.
Ron Huss-Smickler was jailed for 18 months and is disqualified from being a director of a company for 10 years. Steven Beckford received a four month sentence suspended for two years and must complete 100 hours of unpaid community work. He also cannot direct a company for five years.
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.”
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.”
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.
“In this instance, these individuals exploited the uncertainty caused by a global pandemic, endangering public safety for personal profit. HSI is steadfast in its partnership with the National Crime Agency and will continue to investigate cases and illicit international operations to protect citizens of the communities we serve.”
28 July 2023