More than 11 million counterfeitacross five states have been seized by the Department of Homeland Security in recent weeks, and authorities say suspected victims of the scam include hospitals and medical facilities in at least 12 states.
That total includes 1 million fake masks seized today at a warehouse in Western Maryland, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced Wednesday.
An initial criminal investigation revealed China to be the source of thepurportedly made by U.S. manufacturer 3M, said Steve Francis, director of the Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, which is led by Immigration and Customs Enforcement's investigative arm Homeland Security Investigations.
"They're extremely dangerous," Francis told reporters. "They're providing a false sense of security to our first line responders, to American consumers. I can't stress how important it is to ensure we have the legitimate 3M N95 masks that are being deployed to our first responders."
Mayorkas, who called the counterfeit respirators "of no utility whatsoever," said that a health care worker using one around a patient then becomes a danger to others. "Not only do they give a false sense of security, but how dangerous is the exposed individual?" Mayorkas posed to reporters gathered at his inaugural press conference as leader of the Department of Homeland Security. "How dangerous is the individual confronting a potential COVID-19 infection without any protective gear?"
DHS has notified about 6,000 suspected victims of the massive scam, advising them to check their supplies for counterfeit N95 masks.
As of February 10, the department's investigative arm has seized more than $33 million in illicit proceeds connected to-related fraud. Officials have arrested 227 people, served 222 criminal search warrants and opened 862 investigations as part of an ongoing health care fraud investigation launched in April 2020 dubbed "Operation Stolen Promise" by the agency. Plus, more than 1,800 shipments of mislabeled, fraudulent, unauthorized or prohibited test kits or PPE have been seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
As many as 2 million phony 3M masks valuing $8 million were found in approximately 40 hospitals in Washington State alone, according to Washington State Hospital Association. "These masks had the appropriate paperwork and passed physical inspection and testing," said Cassie Sauer, president and CEO of the association. "These N95s are precious resources we need to keep staff safe. It is reprehensible that counterfeiters are selling fake goods."
Pirated masks were also found this month at Cleveland Clinic. The prominent Ohio medical center found a portion of its supply dating back to November contained fraudulently branded N95 respirators purchased through a third-party vendor. In a statement to CBS News, Cleveland Clinic said it took "immediate steps to remove these masks from our sites and have replaced them with approved supplies" following an internal investigation.
In a statement to CBS News, the Minnesota Department of Health said it prevented "500,000 counterfeit N95 respirators from being distributed to Minnesota healthcare facilities," this month, noting the half-million imitation respirators — valued at $2.1 million — would be turned over to 3M for destruction.
As the pandemic drones on, Mayorkas advised scammers continue to exploit desperate Americans, hospitals and medical providers "for a quick buck." Federal investigators point to an uptick in counterfeit medicine and sham websites claiming to sell vaccines.
"We've seen the entire spectrum," HSI Acting Executive Associate Director PJ Lechleitner said Wednesday. "People try to prey on individuals. We've seen that morph into fraudulent vaccines. So any avenue where the criminal enterprises see an entrée to make some money or defraud individuals, we're seeing it."
Acting Director of ICE Tae Johnson told reporters that initial leads into Wednesday's counterfeit mask seizure came from 3M. "We sort of ran down and tracked that to its conclusion," Johnson said, adding that officials believe operations to halt the massive counterfeit mask scam will spread to more states in the coming weeks. "Our work is still underway. We've been investigating 'Stolen Promises' since April. So our work continues."