Criminal gangs and internet fraudsters have diversified into oxygen tanks as demand for the essential gas soars due to the worsening coronavirus crisis.
At least 14 robberies of oxygen tanks have occurred this month, according to federal authorities.
The Security Ministry and the federal consumer protection agency Profeco said in a joint statement that there have been five robberies in México state, three in Mexico City, two in Tlaxcala and one in each of Puebla, Durango, Sonora and Michoacán.
Three men were arrested in Amozoc, Puebla, on Wednesday in connection with the robbery of a truck carrying 89 oxygen tanks while two men were ordered to stand trial after allegedly committing the same crime in Coacalo, México state.
At least three other alleged suspects have been arrested in connection with the theft of tanks, which are currently selling for as much as 30,000 pesos (US $1,485) on the black market. (Tanks of medical oxygen usually cost between 4,000 and 7,000 pesos, or US $200 to $345.)
“We’ve had reports of fake oxygen and black markets [for oxygen] – even [organized] crime is now involved,” Interior Minister Olga Sánchez said Tuesday.
In addition to robberies of trucks, oxygen tank thefts have occurred at hospitals in Tlaxcala, Sonora and México state, the newspaper Reforma reported.
Federal authorities are also going after people seeking to defraud citizens looking to purchase oxygen online for their ill loved ones.
Profeco chief Ricardo Sheffield said Wednesday that hundreds of online oxygen vendors have had their e-commerce pages or social media profiles deleted.
“We’re working hand in hand with cyber police, the National Guard, social media platforms and e-commerce sites. We’ve taken down more than 100 e-commerce pages that were defrauding consumers, speculating and abusing with their prices. [We deleted] 700 Facebook profiles as well and we’re going to take another 1,000 down this week,” he said.
Sheffield called on consumers to ignore ads for oxygen tanks on social media, saying that the tanks are likely stolen and filled with industrial rather than medical oxygen.
“You’ll be throwing your money away, … most probably they won’t deliver anything to you,” he said.
Mexico City police have detected cases in which people paid for oxygen tanks that were offered at low prices online but never received them. Six oxygen supply businesses in Mexico City, México state and Jalisco have been shut down by Profeco for passing off industrial oxygen as medical oxygen, selling half-filled tanks at full tank prices and price-gouging, while another 10 have been sanctioned.
Prices for oxygen have increased due to higher demand, especially in the Mexico City metropolitan area, where the coronavirus situation has continued to deteriorate despite an economic shutdown having been in place for more than a month. Oxygen has been in short supply in recent weeks but the federal government is attempting to remedy the situation.
The Health Ministry has ordered that the production of medical oxygen take precedence over industrial oxygen in order to increase supply, while steps are being taken to import oxygen from the United States for use in the north of Mexico.