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'Not A Problem That Is Going Away': 3M Fighting To Keep Counterfeit N95 Masks Off The Frontline

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- There's been a surge in fraud and counterfeit PPE cases since the beginning of the pandemic. Counterfeit respirators even made it to the frontline in Minnesota. 3M is taking an active stand to prevent them from getting to our health care heroes.

At the start of the pandemic, the rush was on to find respirators.

"We started looking for N95s right away because those were the most difficult things to source," Department of Administration Commissioner Alice Roberts-Davis said.

Her department was tasked with securing PPE for the state's critical care supplies work group to make sure health care providers around the state had what they needed.

"We were looking at everything as an opportunity, anything that seemed viable," Roberts-Davis said.

So when a company approached them with an offer for some 3M N95 masks, with payment only upon receipt, they went for it.

"They even sent us what we called proof of life videos of these masks from China, showing us a warehouse full of these. Everything appeared to be authentic until we received them in the warehouse," Roberts-Davis said.

The state brought in 3M to verify the masks. By sight the company confirmed they were fake. The shipment was confiscated and destroyed.

"Demand still continues to exceed supply and that has led to an opportunity for bad actors to take advantage of consumers," Haley Schaffer, with 3M, said.

Shafer is part of a fraud-fighting group at 3M. While the company has quadrupled the N95 supply since 2019, her team exposes those producing counterfeits, and holds them accountable.

"There is an inherent danger that the respirator may not provide the protection the health care worker is expecting," Schaffer said

Hennepin Healthcare was one of the hospitals that got duped. In December, a nurse noticed the fit of the respirator didn't feel right and alerted leadership. Hennepin Healthcare says they "were immediately pulled from circulation that evening."

"Fit for N95 respirators is very important for the protection that it offers. We worked with them to ID the respirators as counterfeit," Schaffer said.

3M sued the seller. In a motion for a restraining order upheld by a judge, "3M alleges that Nationwide's activities were unlawful and endangered the lives of essential medical workers." Hennepin Healthcare had paid 625% more for them.

So far 3M as filed 29 lawsuits and sent more than 165 cease and desist letters. With several preliminary injunctions and temporary restraining orders granted, along with 14 settlements.

The Minnesota-based company also partners with law enforcement like the FBI.

"Our collaboration with corporations makes us understand what the threat is. We can adjust our investigative priorities based on what they tell us," Special Agent John Bonhage said.

This year the Minneapolis Field Office has connected offices across the country with 3M's team.

"If there's counterfeit product in the marketplace, that's a concern to us in the FBI. That's a federal criminal violation, an intellectual property right concern," Bonhage said.

3M is up front about what to look for between an authentic respirator and a counterfeit, from the material to the print and shape.

"Some of them claim genuine or authentic respirators, but they misspell the words genuine or authentic. Or they might say 3N instead of 3M," Schaffer said.

Shafer says they're committed to fighting the pandemic from all angles to protect their product, and ensure the safety of health care heroes.

"We are seeing increasing numbers of counterfeits over the course of the pandemic. This is not a problem that is going away," Schaffer said.

3M has extensive information dedicated to helping people identify fraud, counterfeiting and price gouging. There's also a hotline to report a concern: 800-426-8688.

The company says it will donate all damages recovered to COVID-19-related nonprofits.

Hennepin Healthcare shared this statement with WCCO:

On December 12, 2020 a nurse brought a concern about the fit of a specific respirator to the attention of Hennepin Healthcare nursing leadership. In response, the concern was escalated and the respirators in question were immediately pulled from circulation that evening in order to assess the quality and effectiveness of the product.

Hennepin Healthcare is actively working to recoup the cost for the 10,080 masks that were purchased from Nationwide Source, Inc. At this time, we have not ruled out pursuing legal action against this company for selling a product that did not meet the standards it claimed.

We promote a culture of empowering event reporting by team members and are grateful to the nurse for bringing this to the attention of nursing leadership when she suspected something wasn't right. We remain vigilant in light of the those who are trying to use the pandemic to take advantage of health care systems. The safety of our patients and staff remains our top priority as we continue to provide critically needed care and services to our community.

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