One million counterfeit N95 masks were seized by federal agents on Wednesday as part of a broad investigation into fraud linked to the global coronavirus pandemic, the head of the Department of Homeland Security said.
The seizure brought the total number of counterfeit masks confiscated in recent weeks to more than 11 million, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas told a press conference.
Mr Mayorkas appeared next to several boxes of seized masks stamped with the name 3M, America’s largest producer of N95.
Officials said the company had worked with investigators to identify sources of counterfeit masks, which originated in China, and that the department planned to make arrests.
Officials declined to provide further details of the seizures, citing the continued investigation. They said federal agents had executed search warrants in five states in the past two weeks, but would not be able to identify which ones.
Well-fitting N95 masks, which provide 95% efficiency in filtering airborne particles, have become the gold standard for frontline workers in the pandemic. But intense demand for the masks, considered superior to the ubiquitous pleated masks, has resulted in the production of counterfeit N95 masks.
Steve K. Francis, deputy director of homeland security investigations’ global trade investigations division, told the press conference that the sale of counterfeit N95 masks could have deadly repercussions.
They are extremely dangerous, said Francis. They give a false sense of security to our first responders, to American consumers. I can’t stress how important it is to make sure we have the legitimate 3M N95 masks that are deployed for our first responders.
He said buying directly from 3M and the company’s authorized suppliers was secure, but consumers going through outside channels could be exposed to fraud.
Mr Mayorkas said the Department of Homeland Security will continue to aggressively prosecute criminals who exploit Americans’ vulnerability for quick cash.
Seizures of these counterfeit surgical masks are ensuring the health and safety of our frontline health workers, who are fighting the pandemic so courageously, by preventing them from receiving substandard personal protective equipment, he said.
Mr Mayorkas urged Americans to be wary of claims by sellers of medical supplies.
We are simply imploring the public to be aware of any websites or individuals selling products claiming to prevent, treat, diagnose or cure Covid-19, he said.
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