“It was so cheap it was unheard of,” says Ruth (last name withheld by request), a healthcare professional in Texas. In February 2022, a Facebook ad popped up on her smartphone with a deal on Maine lobster tails that seemed too good to pass up. “There were a lot of red flags, but it was a legitimate company,” she says. The online seller claimed to be Regalis Foods, a well-known purveyor of seafood and other high-end culinary goods based in New York.
As soon as Ruth filled in her PayPal and contact information, an email popped up from an unknown address. Her $238 worth of lobster tails never arrived and, within a week, all of the associated emails had disappeared from her Gmail account, only to be replaced by streams of bizarre ads and phishing messages.
“There was an article on my news stream about warning signs for scam emails and this basically involved everything they listed: the poor grammar, the typos, the too-good-to-be-true, the immediacy. I feel duped, but PayPal tells me there’s nothing they can do,” Ruth says.
Ruth is just one of more than 1,000 customers who have fallen victim to online scammers impersonating Regalis Foods since January 2022. While some of these orders are small, the average claim is around $200. According to Ian Purkayastha, owner and founder of Regalis Foods, the alleged total of stolen funds is more than $200,000.
“That’s just the number of transactions we know about,” Purkayastha says. He worries about customers that have been scammed and hates that there is little he can do about it. In some cases, such as Ruth’s, Purkayastha has offered gift certificates as a gesture of goodwill, but he knows this does not repair the financial damage caused by fraudsters. “As a company, it’s a shitty feeling when people are getting ripped off because they think they’re buying your merchandise.”
Company employees have also been subjected to harassment and threats from frustrated victims of the scam. In June 2021, one customer called in to say, “If y’all don’t fill my motherfucking order, I’m fixing to drive to New York and I will wipe y’all out. I will hurt somebody. Call me back. I’m tired of fucking with y’all.” It’s one of half a dozen such messages that Regalis employees have received. While no one has acted on the threats of violence thus far, the anxiety that they induce is very real.
Online scams have skyrocketed since March 2020, particularly over Facebook Marketplace. By the spring of 2021, the online retail platform had grown to more than 1 billion users and counting. With e-commerce sales set to pass $1 trillion this year, there’s more than enough financial incentive to attract less-than-scrupulous types. And while Facebook claims to have stringent security measures in place, an ever-growing number of scammers have been using it to steal money and private data, including Google account logins, from users — often with minimal to no repercussions. An extensive investigation by ProPublica found that “[t]he social media giant’s shortcomings in overseeing the service have made it easier for fraudsters to perpetrate a litany of scams.” Those scams often take the form of fake pages that claim to be selling everything from Bitcoin and PlayStations to caviar and crab legs.
“[In January], we started receiving reports that there was a website impersonating Regalis, including all of our imagery, all of our products, all of our banners,” Purkayastha says. Dozens of tip-offs have since come in, including from Laurie Berger, who wrote in an email on March 10 saying, “There’s a fake ‘Regalis Foods’ on Facebook right now. I tried to report it but FB won’t take the report ... Good luck stopping these guys, they’re a pox on the internet.”
In total, more than a dozen fraudulent websites have appeared, all using copyrighted imagery and text ripped directly from Regalis Foods. In many cases, the homepages are visually indistinguishable from the real Regalis — as long as no one bothers to check the URL.
It wasn’t long before complaints started flooding both the Facebook Messenger and email inboxes at Regalis Foods. At one point, Purkayastha says the number of messages from scammer victims exceeded the volume of actual orders on the website. “It really is a factor of the power of Facebook marketing right now,” he says.
Purkayastha, who David Chang once described as “‘Luxury Foods Google’ but with lungs and a tousle of black hair,” founded Regalis Foods in 2012 and has built the company into the go-to supplier for caviar, truffles, and other hard-to-source foods for many New York restaurateurs. For the better part of a decade, Regalis Foods operated exclusively on a wholesale basis to restaurants and business was good — the company was reportedly selling $200,000 worth of black truffles a week in season. Then COVID hit and the demand plummeted overnight. Like other restaurant suppliers, Regalis Foods scrambled to pivot to selling straight to consumers online.
“We launched it in the middle of the pandemic,” Purkayastha says. “This is our first foray into the online marketplace after really being entrenched in the B2B with chefs and restaurants for the last decade. So we’re learning, but it’s a tough learning curve.”
Part of that learning curve has involved figuring out how to deal with scammers. Victims typically write in with bogus confirmation numbers or screenshots of their shopping carts from the fraudulent websites. Purkayastha says Regalis Foods has done its best to answer the onslaught of complaints. Still, many of the fraudsters’ targets have been taking out their anger in the form of negative Facebook and Google reviews.
“This company is a scam,” wrote Arthur V Olipani PE on March 4.
“Regalis foods will bill your credit card and not send the items purchased. When contacted they will say that ‘you ordered from an illegal site’ avoid this company,” wrote John Plichta on January 20.
“They’re all associated with people who got scammed or were part of the scam,” Purkayastha says. “The reviews are very brand-damaging.” The order numbers connected with those reviews may be fake, but getting them removed is incredibly difficult. Regalis employees have had no choice but to spend hours going through Google and Facebook’s standard automated support channels, usually with no success.
“We would contact PayPal, alert them of the scam, and they would close the account,” Purkayastha says, who notes that the real Regalis Foods uses Shopify as a payment platform. “Then within an hour, they would have a new authenticated account.”
While PayPal has been moderately cooperative, Facebook seems unwilling to do anything. Since the scammers are paying for their fraudulent Facebook Marketplace pages, the tech giant has little incentive to take them down. Even getting a human representative to address the problem has proven challenging. “That’s the biggest hurdle: just getting someone to talk to us,” Purkayastha says.
Until Facebook Marketplace steps in, the complaints are likely to keep coming. Tim, a musician in Florida, who wrote into Regalis Foods on February 5, was suspicious of a Facebook ad offering 20 pounds of Alaskan king crab legs for $80. Still, he remembered that his younger brother, who had spent years working on a crab boat, used to sometimes come back to the harbor with a surplus of crustaceans, which he would sell off in bulk at the docks at a steep discount. The deal was just plausible — and tempting — enough.
“Of course, I was angry and frustrated,” he says of his shipment that never arrived. “I knew it sounded too good to be true.”
Diana Hubbell is a New York-based food and culture journalist.