How did ICE seize counterfeit N95 masks?

N95 masks have been widely used in the healthcare field during the pandemic, as they’re a specific type of disposable face mask that offers high antiviral effectiveness. They can offer virus protection in situations where exposure to the virus is higher, like healthcare settings, especially when there are COVID-19 patients. This is why these masks have been the target for many scams and illegal schemes: their demand has increased significantly since January.

Understanding the value of N95 masks

They’re much more effective for protection against COVID-19 than surgical masks, and even more than reusable cloth masks. The name of the mask indicates that it’s a respirator that filters out 95% of the non-oil-based airborne particles in the air. This is established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in a naming system for respirators. In it, the ‘N’ indicates the lack of resistance to oil, and the ‘95’ the filtration efficacy of the respirator. This classification is considered the filtration standard in the United States.

N95 masks can, therefore, filter out a minimum of 95% particles without oil molecules in them, and that are 0.3 micrometers in size, which means they’re airborne. Particles that meet these characteristics include smoke, dust, pollen, and certain types of microorganisms that might cause diseases, like the flu virus or the coronavirus. For this reason, this mask can be used in a wide variety of work settings, including the healthcare field.

All respirators manufactured following the NIOSH classification must get their approval before their distribution or marketing as a respirator type inside said classification. For example, if a company manufactures N95 masks, NIOSH must test these respirators and approve that they can be considered as such before they’re distributed and marketed as N95 respirators. As N95 masks can be used in healthcare centers, when they’re manufactured to be marketed as medical equipment they need approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as well.

The value and scarcity of these products gives opportunities for illegal schemes to surge

During the majority of the year, most medical supplies and PPE have been scarce, like surgical masks, N95 masks, face shields, gloves, and gowns. This is because, with a high influx of COVID-19 patients, hospitals are needing several layers of protection every day. N95 masks have been one of the most critical items, with popular models manufactured by brands like 3M and Honeywell being scarce too. Some popular 3M N95 masks like the 3M 8511, the 3M 1860, and the 3M 8210, are hard to find for sale too.

The shortages experienced by the majority of hospitals across the USA have led to struggles to find enough PPE, with healthcare workers having to make use of the existing ones. This has allowed illegal schemes to surge during this time of need, with authorities like ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) seizing counterfeit N95 mask shipments during the majority of the year across all states.

If hospitals or governments were to buy these fake masks in bulk or wholesale, this would put workers and patients in healthcare settings at a very high risk of getting infected, since these masks aren’t regulated by NIOSH, and therefore there’s no proof they will offer the virus protection they’re supposed to. The majority of the scams happen online, but larger schemes can happen in the real world too.

Take for example one of the latest seizures of counterfeit N95 masks, which happened just last week in a warehouse in Texas. There, an enormous amount of N95 respirators, which were directed to supply hospital workers, were seized, amounting to $600,000 worth of masks.

The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) intercepted the shipment last Monday at Ysleta Cargo Facility, which contained 100,090 fake N95 surgical masks that were posing as 3M N95 masks. Reportedly, the shipment was in transit from El Paso and its destination was a hospital on the East Coast. This was all reported in a statement made by the ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations in a press conference.

The acting special agent in charge of ICE’s HIS in El Paso said during the conference that this action ensured health and safety in frontline workers, since the masks were directed to them, and who need to use the proper PPE and not inferior one like the masks they seized. He also stated that the seizure protected the integrity of the country’s economy.

Since the pandemic began, N95 masks have been the most targeted item when it comes to these types of schemes due to their high demand, importance, and scarcity. Selling counterfeit masks has been one of the most common activities between these scams, posing as reputable and reliable PPE manufacturers and distributors, and 3M being the most targeted one. As healthcare centers struggle to obtain them, this makes them vulnerable to falling for these scams, putting people’s lives at risk.

Multiple schemes related to the pandemic have been investigated by CBP and ICE since April, with most of them including the sale of counterfeit items and importing PPE illegally. This is all done as part of the Operation Stolen Promise mission, which has seized more than $29 million in PPE and arrested 187 people so far according to ICE. Including the seizure done last week, and one done in September with more than 20,000 counterfeit N95 masks seized in a shipment arriving in Boston from Hong Kong.

It’s always recommended to make sure the masks you’re purchasing for supplying healthcare centers are 100% legitimate, with approvals from NIOSH, and that come from reliable and certified distributors of the most renowned brands. Companies like 3M offer a list of certified distributors on their website.

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