Millions of counterfeit N95 masks have been sold to hospitals and medical facilities across the country, prompting worry among frontline workers—and spurring a flurry of federal investigations into the scams.
Amid soaring demand, fraudsters 'sneak in'
According to Chaun Powell, VP of disaster response for Premier, a major hospital supply company, the nation's use of N95s has increased from an average of 25 million per year to 300 million in 2020. As a result, hospitals and other medical facilities have had to look beyond their usual supply chain for personal protective equipment—creating a ripe opportunity for fraudsters to "sneak in," Powell explained.
As a result, providers have been repeatedly encountering counterfeit masks, including in Minnesota, Ohio, and New Jersey, Kaiser Health News reports.
For instance, the Cleveland Clinic has acknowledged it accidentally sent out counterfeit 3M masks to its staff, and nurses at Jersey Shore University Medical Center discovered a number of counterfeit masks after staff said the masks smelled odd, seemed flimsy, and made some of their faces burn.
And according to the Associated Press, officials in Washington state examined their supply of N95 masks and determined that at least 300,000 masks that had been purchased for about $1.4 million were counterfeit. The scam could involve up to 1.9 million masks, said Beth Zborowski, from the Washington State Hospital Association. Those masks are currently being stockpiled rather than put in circulation.
"People have been terrified for the last two-and-a-half months," Daniel Hays, a nurse and union VP at Jersey Shore Medical, said. "They felt like they were taking their lives in their hands, and they don't have anything else to wear.
A wide-ranging federal investigation
In response to the widespread fraud, federal agencies have deployed 7,000 agents to investigate scams, confiscate counterfeit products, and arrest "hundreds of people," AP reports. The federal initiative is housed at the National Intellectual Property Coordination Center.
Overall, federal officials say they have seized more than 14.5 million counterfeit masks since the pandemic's start, including the more than 10 million counterfeit 3M N95 masks seized in more than 1,250 law enforcement raids.
Fake 3M masks shipped from China appear to be the most common scam, said Michael Rose, a section chief in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's global trade division. At times these counterfeits can be easy to spot, such as when products saying they are "Made in the USA" arrive in a shipment from China. "It's definitely cat and mouse," Rose said. "Where we might get better (at intercepting counterfeits), they can ship elsewhere, change the name of the company and keep going."
In the most recent investigation, the Department of Homeland Security emailed five states warning about potential N95 scams. DHS declined to name the states or the company involved, citing an active investigation.
The masks are giving first responders "a false sense of security," Steve Francis, assistant director for global trade investigations with the Homeland Security Department's principal investigative arm. "We've seen a lot of fraud and other illegal activity," he added.
Separately, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, said she intends to as the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the counterfeit masks shipped to Washington state.
"We are looking to our FTC to make sure that there are no fraudulent products and materials out here, like masks, that my state is facing," Cantwell said.
Just how dangerous are these counterfeit masks?
To further investigate the situation, KHN sent some of the counterfeit masks discovered at Jersey Shore Medical to ECRI, a nonprofit that assesses the quality of medical technology for health care providers.
Perhaps surprisingly, Chris Lavanchy, engineering director for ECRI, said the masks showed similarly high filtration levels to legitimate N95s in tests. However, he cautioned that they also showed more breathing resistance than anticipated, which could cause the person wearing the mask to grow tired or cause them to take the mask off, Lavanchy said.
"We're kind of scratching our heads trying to understand this situation, because it's not as black-and-white as I would have expected," Lavanchy said. "I've looked at other masks we knew were counterfeit and they usually perform terribly."
Zborowski said the masks her association ordered were assessed as well. "It's not like we just ordered them sight unseen," she said. "We had two major medical centers in Seattle … look at the quality, straps, cut them open and decide 'This looks like it's the real deal' before they bought them."
She added while the association was unable for a time to acquire masks directly from 3M, the company is expediting its order after the latest fraud came to light.
Meanwhile, 3M—which has posted tips to its website on how facilities and providers can double-check 3M products to ensure they aren't fakes—is cautioning providers not to trust any counterfeit product. Fraudsters do not test "[t]hese products … to see if they make the N95 standards," Kevin Rhodes, 3M's VP and deputy general counsel, said. "They're not interested in testing them. They're interested in making as many as they can as cheaply as possible" (Jewett/Hancock, Kaiser Health News, 2/12; Jewett, Kaiser Health News, 2/11; Long, Associated Press, 2/10; Kelley, "Changing America," The Hill, 2/10).