Federal agents in WASHINGTON have seized more than 10 million fake 3M N95 brand masks in recent weeks, the result of an ongoing investigation into counterfeits sold in at least five states to hospitals, medical facilities and agencies government.
The most recent seizures came on Wednesday when Homeland Security officers intercepted hundreds of thousands of counterfeit 3M masks at an East Coast warehouse that were due for distribution, officials said.
Investigators also informed about 6,000 potential victims in at least 12 states, including hospitals, medical facilities and others who may have unknowingly purchased fakes, urging them to stop using the medical-grade masks. Officials have encouraged medical workers and companies to check 3M’s website for advice on how to spot fakes.
Not only do they give a false sense of security, but how dangerous is the exposed individual without protective gear? They are of no use, Homeland Security Secretary Ali Mayorkas said of the fake masks.
The masks do not go through 3M’s regular distributors, they come from outside the normal supply chain, officials said. But hospitals and medical groups have increasingly bypassed normal shopping routines during mask shortages in the global pandemic, officials said. They said the scams were taking advantage of the panic over masks.
Homeland security officials did not say which states the fake masks were sent to, but said criminal charges would be pending.
Fake masks are not tested to see if they meet strict N95 standards and could endanger frontline medical workers if used while treating patients with COVID-19.
Almost a year after the start of the pandemic, fraud remains a major problem as crooks seek to exploit hospitals and desperate Americans. Federal investigators say they have seen an increase in the number of bogus websites claiming to sell vaccines as well as fake drugs produced abroad and scams involving personal protective equipment. Systems are delivering bogus products, unlike when the pandemic started when fraudsters focused more on stealing from customers.
3M, based in Maplewood, Minnesota, is one of the world’s largest producers of the N95 mask, which has been approved by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. It is considered the gold standard when it comes to protection against the coronavirus. The company shipped some 2 billion N95 masks in 2020 as the pandemic escalated, but in the early months when masks were scarce, fraudsters took advantage.
So far, during the pandemic, Homeland Security Investigations has used its 7,000 agents, along with border officials, the Food and Drug Administration, and the FBI, to investigate scams, seizing $ 33 million in fake products and arresting more than 200 people. The effort is based at the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordinating Center, a government watchdog aimed at enforcing international trade laws and combating theft of intellectual property.
In the past two weeks, federal agents have executed search warrants and seized masks in five different states, and further action is awaited. But fake masks have already reached frontline workers in other cases.
3M is facing more and more cases of fraud. Over the past year, there have been more than 1,250 law enforcement raids, which have resulted in the seizure of millions of fake masks. The company has filed more than a dozen lawsuits for fraud, counterfeiting and price fraud.
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