A bottle of "red mercury" sold by an online scammer (left) and messages exchanged between dealers and the writer. Images: Jak Hutchcraft, composite by VICE staff
Sometimes, the internet dispels urban legends. Other times, it breathes new life into them. Both can be said of red mercury. The mysterious material has been around for decades, supposedly used in Soviet Russia to create nuclear explosives. Now, the chemical is being touted as a cure for coronavirus.There’s just one problem: red mercury doesn’t actually exist. Despite being sold on the international black market since the 1970s, red mercury has long been discounted as a hoax. In 1992, New Scientist reported that a US Department of Energy report found that pure mercury, a mercury-antimony compound, mercuric iodide and mercuric oxide had all been offered for sale under the guise of red mercury. “There are reports of mercury stained red,” the report stated, “and there is a report of one lazy con artist trying to sell mercury in a bottle painted red with nail polish.” Unsurprisingly, the department came to the conclusion that the substance simply does not exist.
Red mercury’s name may be in reference to Russia, where it was supposedly developed for use as a secret nuclear material. Others say that it is a code name for the “Fogbank” compound, used by the US to build hydrogen bombs. There is even speculation that the substance was invented by US intelligence agencies to deceive terrorists into exposing their nuclear ambitions. Western media picked up on the hoax in the 80s and since then, it is said to have been found in TV sets, sewing machines, bat nests and even an Ancient Egyptian sarcophagus. By the noughties, red mercury received a new lease of life when scammers began selling the substance on Facebook and YouTube. The price of red mercury online varies from seller to seller, and some seem to be making their rates up as they go along. The Best Supplier Chemical website offers red mercury for $350 a gram, and avoids making specific claims about its properties. Others, such as a seller based in Rabat in Morocco, aren’t so measured. Their website proudly advertises “virgin pure mercury products, for groups who are engaged in research, mining, medical, laboratory study.” When I contact the seller on WhatsApp, they tell me that red mercury is “used to do so many things.” I ask if the substance can cure coronavirus and they say, “yes,” then send me a video that shows an earring supposedly becoming magnetised by a beaker of red liquid. They go on to claim that the red mercury is sourced from a “traditional village” in Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and that it would cost me an eye-watering £25,000 per gram.
Another seller from Utu Abak in Nigeria tells me via Facebook Messenger that he gets his red mercury from Russia. He also claims that the substance cures COVID-19, and that it costs $2,500 a kilogram. When I ask further questions, he demands that I send him a recharge card “before I reveal all the secret for you.” I refuse, and our conversation turns slightly more esoteric. “[Red mercury] is used in money rituals,” he says. “For example, if you have like one kilogram, I can use it to get one million dollars.” He goes on to cite “protection from juju” as another reason to purchase red mercury. Clearly, the red mercury hoax is alive and well on the internet. But what are these dealers actually selling?“Red mercury, or whatever it is, is like a unicorn,” says Professor Andrea Sella, a chemistry professor at University College London. “It’s a mythical beast, it doesn’t exist. I’d say it’s just a con to separate people from their money.”While there are some mercury-based compounds that are red in colour, such as mercury sulphide, these don’t attest to the supposed “special” qualities of red mercury. Mercury has been misused in medicine for centuries, Sella explains, dangerously administered as a treatment for syphilis, depression and constipation. “In the 20th century, the alarm was signalled,” he says. “It was recognised that exposure to mercury causes long-term problems, especially neurological. Mercury is bad news, no matter what you do with it.”
What would be the impact of ingesting red mercury sold by one of these online dealers?“You’d have to be insane,” Sella says. “With whatever you eat or ingest, you want it to be regulated. You’re taking a serious gamble if you get something that has the word ‘mercury’ in its name. I would steer clear of it.”As the pandemic continues, many quack cures have been hailed as miracle “treatments” for coronavirus – most notably Donald Trump’s touting of an unproven anti-malarial drug. Sadly, red mercury – a hoax medicine condemned by countless experts – seems in-keeping with the anti-science conspiracy theories that have gained ground during the political uncertainty of recent years. Martin, 34, from West Sussex was almost stung by a red mercury scam that claimed to offer protection from coronavirus. “My friend showed me a company on social media who claimed to be selling a special product which they claimed protects your home from COVID-19,” he says. “They’d posted videos of their products being used in different customers’ homes. But these looked bogus, I could tell they were all taken in the same house.” Martin reported the scam to Citizens Advice. “It’s horrible to think that some people are willing to capitalise on people’s fears,” he says. “Particularly at this time, when so many are already low on money and worried about their finances.”Martin’s fears seem to be justified. Jerry Houseago of Citizens Advice tells me that the organisation has received a number of reports of bogus COVID-19 products being sold online.
“One person came to us about a CBD shop which advertised that their products could ward off the virus,” he tells me via email. “Another came to us about a spa offering colonic therapy and hydrogen breathing generators as treatments.”As there is currently no cure for coronavirus, any red mercury products that claim to do so are in breach of the Consumer Rights Act 2015, as they would be neither “as described” nor “fit for purpose.”If you have been scammed by a red mercury dealer, Citizens Advice notes that it is possible to receive a refund – providing you paid using PayPal, or a debit or credit card. Houseago also has advice for anyone who may find themselves tempted by the claims of a red mercury seller. “If it sounds too good to be true it probably is,” he says. “And that’s definitely the case with these ‘miracle’ cures. Consult your doctor or pharmacist if you’re looking to buy any health-related products.”