How did the Government Seize 100,000 Counterfeit N95 Masks at the Border?

In the wake of the year 2020, people were hopeful that the New Year will usher in abundance and further development; little was known that the year will go down in the history of humankind as one of the notorious years.

Many were surprised to hear about a disease caused by a virus that is easily transmitted via air droplets and that it has caused a lot of deaths just in a few days. Most people thought it would end in China where it all started until it crept into their borders and down to their very homes.

So is the case of the deadly coronavirus that started in Wuhan, China. Nobody including experts imagined it would become a worldwide pandemic. Nonetheless, here we are, battling with the virus for almost a year and there is the rumor of another new strain.

As Nations recognized and became aware that this notorious virus is now in their backyard, different countermeasures were developed to curtail its transmission. Health regulating agencies as well as experts in the field was called upon to look for the best way out. Preventive and protective measures such as daily and frequent handwashing, social distancing, and the wearing of face masks were enacted.

Citizens of each country were informed about these measures and told to comply to safeguard their lives. Any behavior of non-compliance was met with due sanctions. Prominent among these protective measures is the wearing of face masks. 

The United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that wearing face masks is very compulsory especially in the public. The agency also advised that individuals and public citizens should reserve the special protective N95 respirators for the medical workers and front-line emergency responders.

This is because these special N95 masks are designed in such a way that they will be able to offer a high level of protection against at least 95 percent of particles from bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants. This made them the mask of choice for many resulting in high demand for them.

Meanwhile, because of the quality of these masks and how they are required to offer a high level of protection, production takes a long time. This is because these masks need to pass through lots of processes and evaluations to be able to meet up the required standard. After production, they again tested by regulating agencies such as the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), an agency that is responsible for testing the quality and approving N95 masks produced by mask producing companies in the United States.

Because of this long time taken in production, the supplies are often lower when compared to the rate of demand. Another problem lies again in the supply chain which is riddled with theft and mismanagement. Hence, there remains a gap to be filled to meet up with the demand. This is what causes some unscrupulous individuals to enter into the market and start the production of counterfeit facemasks.

Counterfeit face masks in the market

The reality about the whole situation is that every player in the business of making face masks is in it primarily for making profits apart from other reasons like securing lives and proffering help for humanity. Also, it is very rare to see charlatans missing such an opportunity to make a profit. This set of people will like to take advantage of the current crisis.

The United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned there are some people out there selling counterfeit N95 respirators. On the agency website, there is a photo of dozens of counterfeit N95 masks.  The photos of the counterfeit masks are easily identified by the red slash across them. You will also be able to find the mask producers that are marked by the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH).

The agency also warns that counterfeit N95 respirators are those products that are falsely marketed and sold as being approved by NIOSH and may not be capable of providing the needed respiratory protection to workers. To be able to identify which respirator is counterfeit, the signs to look out for according to the agency are highlighted below:

  • When there are no markings on the Filtering face-piece respirator (FFR) at all.
  • When there is no approval or TC number on the Filtering Face-piece respirator (FFR) or headband.
  • When there are no NIOSH markings.
  • When NIOSH is spelled incorrectly
  • When there is a presence of decorative fabric or other decorative add-ons (e.g sequins)
  • When there are claims for approval for respirators for children. (According to the site, there is no NIOSH approval for any type of respiratory protection for children)
  • When the FFR has ear loops instead of headbands

It is advised that the NIOSH approval label be identified in any packaging or on the users’ instruction. The agency also advised that for every approved mask by NIOSH, an abbreviation is affixed to the FFR itself. For example, every NIOSH approved FFR always has one of the following designations: N95, N99, N100, R95, R99, R100, P95, P99, and P100. You can check for product authenticity on the NIOSH Certified Equipment List (CEL) or the NIOSH Trusted Source.

The seizing of 100,000 counterfeit masks at the border

In April 2020, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) launched Operation Stolen Promise to protect United States consumers from the increasing and evolving threat posed by the pandemic. This operation involves various federal agencies, including Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the United States Department of Justice, US Postal Inspection Service, US Food and Drug Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, and multiple private sector partners, including Pfizer, 3M, Amazon, and others.

The operation is designed to specialize in global trade, financial fraud, international operations, and cybercrime to investigate financial fraud schemes, the importation of prohibited pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, offending e-commerce schemes, and any other illicit criminal activities associated with the COVID-19 virus that may compromise legitimate trade, financial systems and endanger the public.

Later on November 30, ICE announced the launching of an upgrade to the operation and called it Operation Stolen Promise 2.O to identify and prevent the production, sale, and distribution of unapproved or unauthorized COVID-19 products and drugs.

It is with the help of this Operation Stolen Promise that more than 100,000 counterfeit 3M N95 surgical masks that were meant to be delivered to hospital workers were seized on the 7th of December by the US Customs and Border Protection in conjunction with ICE Homeland Security Investigation.

Before this date, about four days earlier, a shipment of 100,080 3M N95 surgical mask with an MSRP of $600,480 which was in transit at an EL Paso bonded warehouse destined to be delivered to a hospital on the East Coast was intercepted by CBP officers at the Ysleta Cargo Facility.

These officers were able to determine that the masks were counterfeits after working with the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center and 3M Company. The shipment violated the Importation and Removal Law (19 U.S.C. 1595a(c)(2)(A)) and the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. According to one of the officers, the successful seizure of these counterfeit surgical masks not only makes certain the health and safety of the frontline health workers by preventing them from receiving inferior personal protective equipment, but it also protects the integrity of the American Economy.


It is important to know that the lives of people are at stake and the production of counterfeit masks will further complicate the situation of things especially for those who are at the forefront trying to combat the deadly coronavirus. Therefore, if you have a suspicion about any product, report this to the appropriate authorities, a good example is the CDC.

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