The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigators are warning consumers about the rise in fraudulent products and scams related to COVID-19 after seizing more than 11 million counterfeit N95 respirators being marketed in the United States to medical workers and first responders.
Operation Stolen Promise is comprised of dozens of federal and private partners, including mask manufacturer 3M, drug company Pfizer and online retailer Amazon, and has seized more than more than $3.2 million in illicit products and resulted in 11 arrests since May 2020.
“These seizures illustrate the ongoing efforts of HSI, CBP and private industry in keeping our communities and medical staff safe and free from counterfeit products,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a press conference on Wednesday.
“Often, this battle is fought behind the scenes and is unknown to the general public, but you can be assured that the DHS workforce remains firmly committed to protecting the health and safety of our medical workers, the American public and the integrity of the American economy.”
According to a DHS news release, the latest seizure took place on Wednesday when special agents seized hundreds of thousands of counterfeit masks from an east coast warehouse.
DHS would not elaborate on the seizure, but added that within the past two weeks HSI has conducted multiple search warrants across five states from coast to coast, as well as efforts to stop counterfeit masks from entering the U.S. DHS would not say in which states the search warrants were conducted.
The agency has also notified about six thousand suspected victims of fraud in at least 12 states.
Those victims include hospitals and medical facilities. HSI urges anyone who has received medical masks from illicit dealers to immediately stop using the products and contact HSI.
“The public-private partnerships that are the hallmark of the IPR Center allow for swift and decisive action to protect consumers from fraudulent and potentially harmful or even deadly products," Acting ICE Director Tae Johnson said. "This work, which is important on a blue-sky day to protect consumers, U.S. businesses and the U.S. economy, is even more critical during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The IPR Center with its many government agency and industry partners are unified in their commitment to fight COVID-related fraud.”
According to DHS, investigators worked off of initial leads that came to the HSI-led National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center last week through 3M, who shared the reports of suspected counterfeit items being purchased for healthcare workers.
“3M is proud to partner with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to help combat counterfeiting of 3M N95 respirators,” 3M Deputy General Counsel Kevin Rhodes said. “This collaboration has helped prevent millions of counterfeit respirators from reaching frontline workers. We are committed to fighting the pandemic from all angles – manufacturing needed PPE, working to prevent counterfeiting and helping ensure N95s get to where they are needed the most.”
As of Feb. 10, HSI has reportedly also made 227 arrests, served 222 criminal search warrants, opened 862 investigations and analyzed nearly 80,000 COVID-19 domain names as part of Operation Stolen Promise.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have also been responsible for seizing more than 1,800 shipments of mislabeled, fraudulent, unauthorized or prohibited COVID-19 test kits, personal protective equipment and other related equipment.
DHS asks that anyone with information on COVID-19-related criminal activity including frauds and scams to contact HSI at [email protected].