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U.S. investigating massive counterfeit N95 mask scam

What type of mask to wear and how to buy it
How to tell if a mask is counterfeit and what type of mask is best 08:37

Federal authorities are investigating a massive counterfeit N95 mask operation in which fake 3M masks were sold in at least five states to hospitals, medical facilities and government agencies. Experts say the foreign-made knockoffs are becoming increasingly difficult to spot and could put health care workers at grave risk for the coronavirus.

These masks are giving first responders "a false sense of security," said Steve Francis, assistant director for global trade investigations with the Homeland Security Department's principal investigative arm. He added, "We've seen a lot of fraud and other illegal activity."

Officials could not name the states or the company involved because of the active investigation.

Nearly a year into the pandemic, fraud remains a major problem as scammers seek to exploit hospitals and weary Americans. Federal investigators say they have seen an increase in phony websites purporting to sell vaccines as well as fake medicine produced overseas and scams involving personal protective equipment. The schemes deliver phony products, unlike fraud earlier in the pandemic that focused more on fleecing customers.

3M, based in Maplewood, Minnesota, is among the largest global producers of the N95 mask, which has been approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and is considered the gold standard in protection against the coronavirus. The company delivered some 2 billion N95 masks in 2020.

"They're not coming from authorized distributors," said Kevin Rhodes, 3M's vice president and deputy general counsel, of the fake N95 masks. "They're coming from companies really just coming into existence."

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Rhodes encouraged medical facilities and even workers to look on the company's website for tips on how to spot fakes, namely through packaging or faulty trademarks.

"These products are not tested to see if they make the N95 standards," he said "They're not interested in testing them. They're interested in making as many as they can as cheaply as possible."

How to identify a genuine N95 mask

Any mask that claims an N95 approval rating must have been rigorously tested by NIOSH. Respirators approved by the agency bear labels either on the respirator or within its packaging, and includes an abbreviated approval on the face piece itself. Approval numbers can be cross-checked against NIOSH's certified equipment list

Consumers should generally avoid shopping for such masks on Amazon and eBay, experts say. Instead, people should refer first to the CDC's list of N95 alternatives that the Food and Drug Administration approves for use in health care settings and try to buy them directly from the manufacturer. 

Counterfeit or unapproved N95s typically lack the required NIOSH markings. Occasionally, NIOSH or the mask's purported brand name will be misspelled. Any decals like sequins indicate a mask is fake. Additionally, N95 masks that claim to be approved for children are counterfeit, according to the CDC. Avoid masks with ear loops, as opposed to elastic headband straps, as they do not provide the tight seal around the face that N95s require.

During the pandemic, Homeland Security Investigations has used its 7,000 agents in tandem with border officials, the Food and Drug Administration and the FBI to investigate scams, seize phony products and arrest hundreds of people to help stop fraud. The effort is based at the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, a government watchdog aimed at enforcing international trade laws and combating intellectual property theft.

There have been already more than 1,250 raids by law enforcement that resulted in the seizure of 10 million counterfeit 3M masks alone. The company has filed more than a dozen lawsuits over reports of fraud, counterfeiting and price gouging.

Other reports of fraud

There are many other reports of fraudulent masks that have reached frontline workers.

In the latest matter, Homeland Security investigators sent an email warning of potential fraud to certain states. The email, viewed by The Associated Press, said 3M N95 mask models 1860 and 1860S may have been provided by a company called Q2 Solutions and the masks may be fraudulent. The masks have a seal that says "Peru," which is not used outside of Latin America. The company is based in Miami and has offices around the U.S. and globally. It did not respond to requests for comment.

Officials in Washington state examined their mask supply, which had come from a different company, and discovered that 300,000 masks they had purchased for about $1.4 million were counterfeit. Officials are investigating.

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Beth Zborowski of the Washington State Hospital Association said the fraud has the potential to affect 1.9 million masks but they are mostly in stockpile now rather than general circulation.

She said the mask supplier had been vetted and the masks "passed all the physical and visual inspection test." Zborowski said that for a time, the association could not get the masks directly from 3M, but the company now is expediting its order after learning of the fraud.

Health care workers "have plenty of anxieties on a day-to-day basis. They don't need to also worry about whether their masks are fake," she said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers have seized nearly 15 million counterfeit face masks since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the agency reported February 4. Agents confiscated the unsafe personal protective equipment as part of an effort to prevent criminals from exploiting the public crisis for economic gain. 

The agency also seized roughly 180,000 prohibited COVID-19 test kits and more than 38,000 prohibited chloroquine tablets typically used to treat malaria. Chloroquine is considered safe for patients with malaria, but has not been shown to be an effective treatment for COVID-19. 

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