WASHINGTON • Millions of counterfeit masks were bought by hospitals, medical institutions and government agencies in at least five US states, and some of them were used by healthcare workers in Washington state, the federal authorities have said in announcing an investigation.
Many of the masks were clever fakes, stamped with the 3M logo and shipped in boxes that read “Made in the USA”, even though they were not made in the United States or by 3M, federal investigators said on Wednesday.
Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, said the fraudulent masks are dangerous because they may not offer the same level of protection against the coronavirus as legitimate N95 masks made by 3M.
“We don’t know if they meet the standards,” said Mr Brian Weinhaus, a special agent with HSI.
News of the probe came as HSI’s intelligence branch warned law enforcement agencies separately on Wednesday that criminals on the dark Web had, since December, been selling counterfeits of coronavirus vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration for “hundreds of dollars per dose”.
That assessment said transnational criminal organisations in Latin America were probably best positioned to take advantage of a shortage of legitimate vaccines to distribute counterfeit and stolen vaccines, though it was unclear if they had done so.
Ms Cassie Sauer, president and chief executive of the Washington State Hospital Association, said about two million counterfeit N95 masks may have made it into the state. Washington state hospitals bought hundreds of thousands of the fraudulent masks, and the association itself bought 300,000 for its members, she said.
The masks were “really good fakes”, Ms Sauer said, noting that they included a 3M logo, secure straps, a metal bar across the top and a foam strip across the nose.
“They look, they feel, they fit and they breathe like a 3M mask.”
But they were not made by 3M, and officials do not know how protective they might be. “It’s reprehensible, the depravity,” she said. “We’re horrified.”
Coronavirus fraud has been a problem since the start of the pandemic, with unscrupulous businesses seeking to exploit the health crisis by selling fake testing kits, treatments and personal protective gear. But the counterfeit mask investigation, which was previously reported by The Associated Press, shows how these deceptive products have become increasingly sophisticated, officials said.
Mr Weinhaus, the special agent, said companies that claim to be medical suppliers were buying the copycat N95s, typically in China, and selling them as legitimate 3M masks.
Many of the masks include a reflective seal with the word “Peru”, which 3M said it does not use outside of Latin America. Mr Weinhaus said the agency was trying to track the respirators back to the source and stop them at the border.