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Parents trying to find baby formula are getting scammed

"I was desperate. You don't play with the nutrition of your baby."

Shelves typically stocked with baby formula sit mostly empty at a store in San Antonio, Tuesday, May 10, 2022. AP Photo/Eric Gay, File


Andrea, a mother of a 5-year-old and a 3-month-old, has been desperate to find her baby’s formula. Her daughter has severe milk and soy allergies, and Andrea couldn’t produce enough milk to feed her. The pediatrician put her on a specialized formula – a formula that disappeared from shelves during the shortage and hasn’t really returned.

To make matters worse, her insurance that usually covers the formula recently stopped. Their pediatrician also couldn’t help. “So I took matters into my own hands,” said Andrea, a mental health therapist who lives in Kensington, Md., and asked to withhold her last name. She joined several Facebook groups designed to match parents with formula that other parents didn’t need. “I knew there was a possibility I’d get scammed,” she said. “I was desperate. You don’t play with the nutrition of your baby.”

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The formula she needs typically costs about $50 per can, but a woman on the Facebook group had what she said was extra and at first offered it for free, then asked for $15 per can. Andrea agreed, but then the woman asked for more money, and then a deposit to help with shipping costs. Despite the red flags, Andrea sent the woman $50 by PayPal. When the formula never showed up, she wasn’t shocked.

“I know people take advantage of people in these situations, and all in all, it really wasn’t that bad,” she said. She will dispute the claim with PayPal. But she’s down to just a couple more weeks of food for her baby and still can’t find it on store shelves.

The FTC recently issued a consumer alert to warn parents about formula scams on social media. “They’re popping up online and tricking desperate parents and caregivers into paying steep prices for formula that never arrives,” the warning states. A spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission said they don’t have data on the extent of these scams, but the alerts generally go out when these incidents start coming to the commission’s attention.

“Because we humans trust by default and scammers know this, they use it against us every day, and they always will in perpetuity,” says Robert Siciliano, chief executive of Protect Now, a company that provides security awareness training. He advises that parents avoid buying or selling formula on Facebook, which he said offers no real protection for consumers. Scammers can be a single person who is trying to make some money, or a bigger entity that sets up fake Facebook pages, Google phone numbers and more to try to quickly cash out, he said.

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In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Meta said that the sale of baby formula on Facebook Marketplace is not allowed, per their commerce policies. “We do not tolerate scam activity on any of our technologies – including Groups and Marketplace – and actively review and remove suspicious activity,” the statement read. It also offered tips on how to avoid scams and how to report scammers so they will be blocked. The company touted its “good use cases” of people using Facebook to connect to formula during the shortage.

The bad practices aren’t just happening on Facebook. Keiko Zoll started a website recently to match parents in need of formula with parents who have formula to give. Her site, Free Formula Exchange, received more than 5,000 requests for formula in recent days. After hearing a podcast about the crisis, Zoll created the site that very night. “When moms see other moms in trouble, we step up to help,” Zoll said. “I just felt compelled to act.”

But soon after the site started matching donors with recipients, Zoll heard from a donor who was contacted on the side and asked for the formula from someone who then resold it on Facebook. “The cynic in me is not surprised because in every crisis, there are always going to be opportunists looking to take advantage of people,” Zoll said. The person who resold it has been blocked from the site, and Zoll now has an abuse reporting system.

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Maria Murillo, of Rockville, Md., was also scammed through a Facebook formula group called Formula Finders (different from Facebook Marketplace) – much in the same was as Andrea was. A user promised the specialized formula Murillo needs for her 4-month-old son. Murillo asked for photos and the lot numbers to ensure it wasn’t a formula from the recall, which the user provided. Murillo never received the cans she so desperately needed, and is $65 lighter for it. “On her Facebook profile, she has a picture of her kids in the background. There’s nothing in this profile that made me think ‘scammer,’ ” Murillo said. She believes the person who cheated her out of the money is an actual Facebook user and not a made-up profile based on previous interactions and seeing her online since. The formula Facebook group has since blocked that user.

“It’s not OK to scam. It’s worse to scam from … a mom that’s counting on those two cans to feed her baby one more week,” Murillo said. “I’m fortunate enough that this money did not break me, but I’m in the minority.”

Murillo and others will continue to search for formula online and elsewhere – many reaching out to family and friends, asking them to look for it at their local stores and send some if they find it. Andrea recently bought cans of her daughter’s formula from a store in Puerto Rico that shipped it to her.

“It would be nice if we came together as a community,” Andrea said. “This is a very vulnerable moment. You’re already beating yourself up for not being able to produce.”

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