With the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for medical PPE (personal protective equipment) has been an ongoing issue healthcare facilities have been affected by. Even though these shortages include many items, like surgical masks, KN95 masks, gloves, gowns, and face shields, N95 masks have been the most sought after item, and the most affected one as well.
This situation has allowed many illegal schemes and scams to be made, where counterfeit N95 respirators are offered for sale at an absurd price posing to be a reputable brand. One of the most targeted brands being 3M, with their 3M N95 masks being very popular, including the 3M 8210, 3M 8511, and 3M 1860. Most of these illegal activities happen online.
People can make the mistake to buy these counterfeit items in bulk or wholesale, paying more than double the price. But luckily, many of these schemes have been shut down by authorities all around the United States. Today, we’ll discuss the civil lawsuit filed by the Indiana Attorney General due to a scam involving the valuable N95 respirators.
According to the Indianapolis Business Journal (IBJ), the Attorney General for the state of Indiana, Curtis Hill, filed a civil lawsuit against both a corporation and an individual this Friday. The reason behind this lawsuit is an alleged conspiracy to sell to the state millions of N95 masks that claimed to be made by 3M to the state. The sellers, however, had no ties to the manufacturer or ability to obtain these N95 respirators.
As reported by the IBJ in May, the parties in question had already received a lawsuit from 3M themselves. The suit was filed against a company based in Nevada that allegedly tried to make a price-gouging scheme described as “false and deceptive” in which they offered $285 million to $14.25 billion worth of respirators to the state of Indiana.
The old suit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Indianapolis, in which 3M accused Reno, Zenger LLC, and the agent Zachary Puznack of posing as a 3M distributor and contacting Indiana officials to sell them around 100 million N95 masks on their behalf.
3M said in their complaint that they have “no affiliation whatsoever with defendants, whose fraudulent scheme during a global pandemic represents not only a new low in rapacious profiteering, but also endangers lives by diverting state officials from legitimate sources of much-needed respirators.”
ZeroAqua, the name under which Zenger LLC is known for, sells on their website a device that, according to them, can disinfect N95 masks. On the same website, they use a photo of the respirator and the 3M trademark, which is unauthorized.
The current suit says that, on April 24, the defendants contacted Indiana Economic Development Corp’s senior vice president and chief of staff, with an offer of at least 100 million N95 masks with a price of $2.85 each, which makes up to $5 billion in total.
This came after Puznak first emailed the chief of staff of Governor Eric Holcomb on the 14th of April, offering the sale of up to 100 million N95 masks at $2.82 each, a price they called a “special rate”. According to 3M, this is more than double their posted list price. According to the complaint, the offer made by Puznak to the state of Indiana also surpasses 3M’s current annual global production, which is 1.1 billion N95 respirators.
3M has also said that Puznak has reached out to customers via his LinkedIn page, falsely claiming to work directly with the company, and seeking international customers as well. The company has said that a part of the award they seek from the suit would be donated to charity.
Why are these masks so targeted by scammers?
N95 masks are considered the best disposable face mask healthcare providers can use for virus protection while they work during the pandemic. Healthcare settings are situations of high exposure to the virus, and while the general public can be safe by wearing reusable cloth masks combined with social distancing, workers in these high-risk settings need the best antiviral protection they can get to avoid infection.
These aren’t regular face masks, they’re in fact respirators. The name comes from a classification the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) establishes for respirators, which is considered the standard used inside the USA. To name respirators, they use a two-part system in which they take into consideration the oil-resistance and the filtration rate.
Based on this, N95 masks are non-oil-resistant respirators with a 95% filtration rate, which means they can filter out a minimum of 95% of the non-oil based airborne particles in the air. These are particles with a size as small as 0.3 micrometers that don’t contain any oil molecules. Some examples include allergens like dust, smoke, pollen, as well as viruses like the flu virus or the virus responsible for COVID-19. Therefore, these masks have many different uses outside the medical field.
When respirators are manufactured following the NIOSH classification, the agency has to test them and approve whether or not they meet their standards for each respirator type. If an N95 mask doesn’t have this approval seal, it’s most likely a counterfeit item, and it may not be as effective as they’re intended to be. Some signs that can alert users that the N95 mask they’re purchasing is that ‘NIOSH’ is misspelled on the packaging or the mask, if they’re marketed to be used by kids, or if they have decorations.