In recent weeks, the hunt for baby formula amid a nationwide shortage has taken April Krogmeier to every grocery store in her southeast Iowa town, and on six-hour-long drives to four different states. “We have been communicating with friends, with family, everybody’s searching,” Krogmeier says.
Another resource she’s turned to is social media. She joined three Facebook community groups where users offer to ship each other formula brands they find in stores in their areas at cost to other parts of the country where parents might be struggling to find what they need.
Krogmeier’s four-month-old daughter, Evelyn, requires a special brand of formula that’s gentle on her digestive system, or else she suffers from painful acid reflux, for which she takes medication. Krogmeier initially tried to breastfeed Evelyn, but the baby didn’t take to it. Because Krogmeier’s milk supply has dropped, she says she’d need to spend more than 12 hours per day pumping if she wanted to keep working at it. “It’s just not doable for me, working full time and taking care of the kids,” she says.
So when someone in a Facebook group said she had extra cans of Enfamil Gentlease that she was willing to sell for $10 each — less than the $18 to $20 they go for in stores — Krogmeier felt lucky. “[The user] went as far as saying, ‘I work at the post office, I can cover the shipping,’” she says. “I’m like, God bless you. You are an amazing woman for doing this and providing this to other moms.” Krogmeier sent the user $120, but the formula never came. “I was so desperate,” she says. “I shouldn’t have fell for it. But I was desperate.”
As is so often the case, we can’t have nice things on the internet, and these community baby formula shipping groups — in theory a grassroots way for parents to help each other — are increasingly rife with scammers, eager to take advantage of new parents trying to feed their infants. On Wednesday, the FTC issued a consumer alert warning parents against social media baby formula scammers. “They’re popping up online and tricking desperate parents and caregivers into paying steep prices for formula that never arrives,” the warning says. The statement also advises parents to research sellers before buying from them and to try to shop locally. Oftentimes, however, those efforts fall short.
According to Robert Siciliano, CEO of cybersecurity company Protect Now, the well-meaning participants in these Facebook groups only make them that much more enticing to criminals. “It’s the perfect opportunity for any scammer across the globe to get money from you,” he says of the groups. And because some people have success sending or receiving through the group, he says, scammers can gain a better foothold. “The fact that people have successfully done it gives that much more credibility for the scammer,” he says. “All these forums lend legitimacy to every single transaction that comes from it.” Many parents are still desperate enough to try.
“All these forums lend legitimacy to every single transaction that comes from it.”
Formula supplies were already strained in February, when producer Abbott Nutrition issued a voluntary recall of certain products after several babies got sick and two died after consuming formula made in one of its facilities in Michigan. Abbott and the FDA recently struck an agreement to get the shuttered plant running again, aimed at easing the shortage in the coming weeks. On Wednesday, President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to up formula production and imports. It’s the White House’s first major action to address the crisis, and for many parents, help can’t come soon enough.
On Long Island, Sara Farris heard about the Facebook group Formula Fairies from her mother-in-law, who saw it on the news, held up as an example of women helping women during a time of crisis. When she found a user who said they’d send her three cans of the formula she needed for her six-month-old, Mia, for $30, she was excited. “That’s three cans, that buys me some more time,” she says. “I went against my better judgment because I thought, who would really be scamming somebody getting baby formula?” But it never came.
Users are trying to police the community groups, posting screenshots of interactions that went awry and warning each other about which users to avoid using the hashtag #ScammerAlert, but the scammers appear virtually impossible to weed out. Krogmeier sent Rolling Stone screenshots of a post that included an alphabetized roster of nearly three dozen alleged scammers to avoid. According to Siciliano, the moms seeking formula are essentially operating on scammers’ turf. “The scammers themselves are already dug in,” he says. “They’re already online, they’re already looking for the next mark, they’re just shifting gears with the next topic at hand.” Whether it’s refugees needing assistance in Ukraine, or moms in the U.S. looking for baby formula, the scammers will be there. “They’re ready to shift gears at a moment’s notice because they’re essentially in business,” Siciliano says. “They decided to do this a long time ago, and they’ve been doing it at whatever opportunity they can. The baby formula shortage is just the latest. This is their job.”
“The scammers [are] already online, they’re already looking for the next mark, they’re just shifting gears with the next topic at hand.”
In San Antonio, Texas, Marielle Stroud and her husband tried their best to research a Facebook formula seller before buying from them, but they still lost money. “I Googled the name, we reverse-image searched, and she actually sent me a voice recording,” Stroud says. “She sounded like a really sweet woman. You could hear her kids screaming in the background and it sounded like there was a TV on.” Stroud sent the user $150, insisting on sending $50 more than the person had asked for, because it was such a bargain. The formula for her five-month-old son Westley never came.
Siciliano says relatively low costs are part of how these scammers operate: Pulling off many smaller heists instead of targeting one person for their life’s savings. “It’s a volume business,” he says. “They are able to set up 20 or 30 accounts in a relatively short period of time, and that could result in, two, three, four grand in a matter of a day or two before people realize that they’ve been scammed. Then they transfer that money right out of the account as quickly as they possibly can.”
Stroud was able to get her money back from PayPal, which Siciliano says is one of the safer peer-to-peer payment systems to use, if you choose the option to pay for goods and services, rather than to friends and family. A representative for PayPal and Venmo says the company has a zero-tolerance policy for fraudulent activity and encourages users to reach out to customer service if they suspect they’ve been scammed. A spokesperson for Facebook says the platform doesn’t allow sales of baby formula on its Marketplace feature and encourages users to report fraudulent posts in groups.
If the situation becomes dire enough, Krogmeier says she is grateful to know she can feed her infant Evelyn regular formula if she needs to, even if it upsets her stomach. “It does cause her pain, and it’s visible, and she struggles with it, but, you know, fed is fed; we’ll get through that part,” she says. In the meantime she’s trying to get Evelyn the food she needs. “I currently have $500 worth of formula on backorder through Amazon, hoping that one of them will just get here before we run out,” she says.