Several states purchased millions of counterfeit N95 masks, Homeland Security says

Photo (c) krisanapong detraphiphat - Getty Images

The agency asks the public to stay vigilant about fake products

Homeland Security Investigations’ (HSI) -- the branch of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in charge of monitoring organizations that try to exploit U.S. customs laws -- says that millions of counterfeit N95 masks made their way to the U.S. and were sold in at least five states.

Millions of the fake masks were purchased by hospitals, medical institutions, and government agencies. About two million of the masks actually made it to the frontline where they were used by health care workers in Washington State.

Cassie Sauer, president of the Washington State Hospital Association, said Washington State hospitals bought hundreds of thousands of the fraudulent masks, and the association itself bought another 300,000 for its members.

“Really good fakes”

Counterfeiting skills have reached expert levels over the years, and these masks were no exception. Many were stamped with the 3M logo and shipped in boxes that read, “Made in the U.S.A.,” despite not being made stateside or made by 3M according to the investigators.

The masks were “really good fakes,” Sauer said, noting that the fraudulent sellers had the design nuances down pat -- right down to a metal bar across the top and a foam strip across the nose.

“They look, they feel, they fit and they breathe like a 3M mask,” she said. But they were not made by 3M, she said, and officials don’t know enough about them to know how protective they might be.

Whether the masks were as effective as a real N95 made by 3M or not, it doesn’t really matter to HSI. “We don’t know if they meet the standards,” said Brian Weinhaus, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, told the New York Times.

Weinhaus said that companies claiming to be medical suppliers were likely buying the copycat N95s in China, then selling them as legitimate 3M masks. He told the Times that many of the masks include a reflective seal with the word “Peru,” which 3M said it does not use outside of Latin America. Weinhaus said HSI is doing its best to try to track the respirators back to the source and stop them at the border.

Public warned to stay vigilant

This is the second large counterfeit nab that HSI has made recently. In early December, more than 100,000 counterfeit 3M N95 surgical masks destined to be used by hospital workers were seized by ICE.

HSI is serious about protecting the legitimacy of coronavirus-related items like masks. Early in the pandemic, the agency launched a special operation – called Operation Stolen Promise – to protect U.S. consumers from the increasing and evolving threat posed by the pandemic. 

The operation involves various federal agencies and private sector partners, including Pfizer, 3M, and Amazon. The companies are all part of the manufacturer-to-consumer purchasing chain. Even the Alibaba Group -- a Chinese version of Amazon which was once on the list of the world’s most “notorious markets” for counterfeit goods -- signed up to do its part.

The operation has done a lot for consumers. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the agency sinkholed 11,000+ COVID-19 domains and made hundreds of arrests. Amazon alone stopped more than 6.5 million products that made inaccurate claims, and it removed over a million offers for suspected price gouging and referred the most flagrant offenders to federal and state law enforcement. 

Still, HSI is asking consumers to remain vigilant, mostly because the agency is focused on things that cross the U.S. borders and typically does not conduct operations at medical facilities. If anyone suspects -- or even wants to verify the legitimacy of -- a coronavirus-related product, HSI encourages the public to report that potential fraud to COVID19FRAUD@DHS.GOV.

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