Psst…the mask black market approaches me

An image of a box of masks from Lutor Lex’s Facebook page.

I received a Facebook message today from someone named Ada, via a profile named “Lutor Lex.” I was sitting on my somewhat uncomfortable teal couch while my massive chocolate Labrador, Moose, stared at me. That’s what he does—he stares. Like everyone in New York City and many throughout the country, I was staying home, doing what staying-home people do in these sheltering days: aka eating unnecessary amounts of food (vegetarian carbonara, one of my specialties) and watching a bingable show, according to my dad (first episode of “The Bureau” on Amazon).

“Hello ,” the message read with its weird spacing. “We have a lot of mask in NYC we can send for u all plc ,so fi u need mask,pls call me. ada: [redacted NY phone number].”

Being a curious journalist, I put down the pasta, block my own number, and call Ada.

“Hello?” answers a young-sounding woman with a thick Chinese accent, surprising me that an actual human is on the line.

I explain that I’ve received a message from her and want to know what she is offering. Is she donating or trying to sell her supply? I also ask why she’d contact me, a journalist, instead of a hospital or the NYC Health Department. We are barely able to understand each other.

“Masks. Yes. I have box,” Ada says.

We bumble through a bunch of my questions and her difficult-to-comprehend answers: How many masks does she have? She has 10 million—no, wait—10,000 (I ask? Yes) masks from Korea, Japan, and China, she says. No, she’s not donating them. She wants $30 per box of 50 masks. (This makes each mask 60 cents, which means there are 200 boxes that would cost, in total, $6,000.) I ask how she has come to possess them. 

Ada’s quasi-English answers and my zero-Chinese questions end up becoming entirely frustrating and lead me to explain that I don’t speak Mandarin and that we need help with translation. Luckily, somehow, she has a friend nearby who gets on the phone.

The friend explains that Ada, 33, had been working at a nail salon before the outbreak. It soon becomes clear that Ada doesn’t actually own the masks, however. Her salon does.

Was she the manager of the salon, I wonder? No, it seems. 

I try to ascertain where the salon is, but the closest I get is that Ada herself lives in Chinatown, in Manhattan.

I wonder if she stole the masks—which I figure out are surgical, not much-needed N95s—from her employer, but I don’t bother asking, considering that even simple questions are difficult to get across and I worry she may hang up at any second. After much back and forth in Chinese, the translator says something about Ada needing to ask her manager.

I explain to Ada’s friend that the absurdly, evilly named Lutor Lex contacted me today, signed Ada’s name, and gave her phone number. She says Ada is utterly mystified. A bunch of back and forth makes clear that Ada has no idea who this person could be—which seems supremely implausible, especially considering that before her friend stepped in as translator, she seemed to know exactly who I was and why I’d called. Lutor Lex looks young based on his one profile picture—20s or 30s—and is clearly working on her behalf since they are both trying to sell her stock. His profile says he is a firefighter and lives in Beijing.

We go back and forth through Ada’s friend until I decide that she likely does somehow possess the boxes of masks and has no intention of explaining why or how I was contacted about them.

Our conversation has reached one of those liminal moments in which you decide either to keep pushing because everything is still mysterious or you let go, realizing you have been around the merry-go round enough times to know that the pony’s never going to fly high enough, long enough, to capture a clear, compelling image with your camera.

I say goodbye to Ada.

After the call I fall into a journo-hole of research on the new mask black market. Scams, it seems, are everywhere. But so are straightforward offers of sales that involve ridiculously high prices (which, sure, can be considered a type of scam).

A hospital supply-chain manager in upstate New York told The New York Times on April 3 that she’s been getting absurd offers of suddenly plentiful black-market masks.

“All of these people are coming out of the woodwork, and all of them mysteriously now have access to an abundant supply,” said Susan Houghtelling, who works for three hospitals owned by Arnot Health, based in Elmira. One person who contacted her offered her boxes of 50 surgical masks for $70 each; she used to pay $2.28, according to the Times.

At the $2.28 price, Ada’s boxes of masks, which appear to be going nowhere in any case, are marked up at 12 times the amount they’d normally cost.

On Friday, NBC New York reported that manufacturer 3M in New Jersey had tried to sell New York City masks at a 600 percent markup. This morning the NYC mayor’s office sent its daily update to journalists, saying that the city is “now sufficient in N95s, surgical masks, gloves,” which seems like a bizarre stretch, considering ongoing reports.

I’ve still got sources throughout NYC hospitals telling me they definitely don’t have enough personal protective equipment (PPE), and media reports concur. “At this point most hospitals and nursing homes in the New York City metropolitan area, which is the national epicenter of the pandemic, continue to operate under ‘crisis conservation’ standards because they do not have enough PPE to distribute to our desperate staff,” Patricia Kane, the executive director of the Nurses Association, the union which represents 42,000 frontline nurses in NY State, told the New York Post on Saturday.

And while NYC and U.S. hospitals overall are still struggling to find gear, I’m going to take an educated guess that Lutor Lex and Ada—whatever their actual stories are—aren’t about to exorbitantly sell what they’ve got. They’re not, unlike what I’m sure are many others, I think—I hope—about to make money off of our misery.

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