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February 25, 2021Seattle, United StatesIntellectual Property Rights and Commercial Fraud, COVID-19

HSI, FBI, CBP seize more than 460,000 counterfeit N-95 masks en route to first responders

More than 460,000 counterfeit 3M N95 surgical masks destined to be used by first responders in the Puget Sound region were seized Feb. 24, 2021 by the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Seattle Border Enforcement Security Taskforce (BEST), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the FBI. The seizure is worth about $587,000. A number of BEST member agencies and partners provided critical support for this operation, including: CBP, FBI, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)-Office of Inspector General (OIG), General Services Administration-OIG, the Food and Drug Administration, Health and Human Services-OIG, the DHS Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the Seattle Police Department and King County Office of Emergency Management.

SEATTLE – More than 460,000 counterfeit 3M N95 surgical masks destined to be used by first responders in the Puget Sound region were seized Wednesday by Homeland Security Investigations' (HSI) Border Enforcement Security Taskforce (BEST), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the FBI.

“Counterfeit surgical masks are a serious threat to the front-line personnel who rely on them as they bravely combat this pandemic. Ensuring the integrity of the PPE supply chain is of utmost importance,” said Special Agent in Charge Robert Hammer, who oversees HSI operations in the Pacific Northwest. “HSI Seattle is actively engaging with our law enforcement partners to combat the trafficking of counterfeit PPE. The seizures today demonstrate our commitment to pursue anyone who puts lives and people’s health at risk just to gain an illicit profit.”

HSI, CBP and FBI work together to prevent unauthorized and counterfeit products from getting to U.S. consumers.

“Criminal organizations are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic by selling counterfeit personal protective equipment to unsuspecting American consumers,” said Brian Humphrey, Director of Field Operations for CBP in Seattle. “In conjunction with our law enforcement partners, the vigilant men and women of CBP are working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to keep these unlawful and unsafe products out of our nation’s hospitals and homes.”

The seizure of these counterfeit surgical masks not only ensures the health and safety of frontline health care workers by preventing them from receiving inferior personal protective equipment, it also protects the integrity of the American economy.

Donald M. Voiret, FBI Special Agent in Charge of the Seattle Field Office said, “During a time that we are relying on masks and other personal protective equipment to protect our first responders, health care providers, and members of the public, it is disheartening that these items can sometimes be fraudulent. We are grateful for our law enforcement partnerships to remove these products from distribution. The FBI encourages everyone to exercise due diligence and appropriate caution when dealing with unknown vendors and brokers in the supply chain.”

This counterfeit 3M N95 surgical mask seizure has a manufacturer’s recommended retail price (MSRP) of approximately $587,000. However, there are reported instances where victim organizations have paid high dollar amounts in excess of the MSRP to secure masks and other forms of PPE.

BEST identified seven potential victim organizations that purchased the counterfeit 3M masks. Notifications have been made to all potential victim organizations to prevent counterfeit PPE from being distributed to frontline workers.

HSI special agents determined the masks were counterfeit after working with the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center and 3M Company.

Potential criminal violations range from smuggling, trafficking in counterfeit goods, wire fraud, money laundering, theft or fraud in connection with government programs and price gouging.

A number of BEST member agencies and partners provided critical support for this operation, including: CBP, FBI, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)-Office of Inspector General (OIG), General Services Administration-OIG, the Food and Drug Administration, Health and Human Services-OIG, the DHS Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the Seattle Police Department and King County Office of Emergency Management.

HSI Pacific Northwest is actively engaged in a nationwide effort to combat counterfeit PPE trafficking.

National effort

In the last several weeks, HSI has conducted enforcement actions across the country that have resulted in the seizure of almost 10 million counterfeit 3M N95 respirators.

Since many of the counterfeit masks are produced abroad, HSI is also working closely with its international law enforcement partners around the world to pursue leads into sources of supply and prevent shipments of counterfeit products from reaching U.S. shores.

Initial leads came to the HSI-led National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center through 3M, which shared reports of suspected counterfeits being purchased by hospitals and government organizations. HSI mobilized quickly, initiating multi-state investigations into the individuals and organizations looking to profit from the sale and distribution of counterfeit N95 respirators.

At the same time, HSI and 3M notified about 6,000 suspected victims of the fraud, in at least 12 states, including hospitals, medical facilities and others who may have purchased medical masks from the illicit dealers, urging them to immediately stop using the masks and to contact HSI immediately.

Since December of 2020, HSI has initiated over a dozen criminal investigations, across the U.S. and overseas, based on information received from 3M, about millions of counterfeit N95 respirator masks being sold to medical facilities and government agencies for use by hospital workers, first responders and others all over the country. The Cleveland Clinic and Washington State Hospital Association are just two of the many organizations that have reported receiving counterfeit respirators.

The HSI investigative actions are in addition to the efforts of Customs and Border Protection to identify and interdict these counterfeits at the border. HSI’s goal is to extend the border outward and intercept counterfeits before they have a chance to enter the U.S. and put frontline workers at risk.

HSI has strengthened its relationship with 3M and their counterfeit fraud team as part of HSI efforts launched under Operation Stolen Promise in April. Due to this relationship, 3M provided information that helped HSI, law enforcement and the public to identify counterfeit 3M respirators.

Operation Stolen Promise

HSI launched Operation Stolen Promise in April 2020 to protect U.S. consumers from the increasing and evolving threat posed by the pandemic. The operation involves various federal agencies, including CBP, FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, and multiple private sector partners, including Pfizer, 3M, Amazon and others.

Operation Stolen Promise combines ICE HSI’s expertise 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/or endangers the public.

For more information or to report COVID fraud, visit the Operation Stolen Promise website.

HSI Upholding Fairness in Global Trade:
Investigating Intellectual Property Crime, Trade Fraud, And Export Violations

HSI protects legitimate trade and commercial systems by investigating intellectual property crime, combating trade fraud and preventing the illicit proliferation of sensitive U.S. technology and weapons.

Through the HSI-led National Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) Coordination Center, HSI spearheads the U.S. government’s response to investigating and preventing intellectual property rights violations, digital piracy, illicit trade and customs fraud. These efforts protect U.S. industry, the U.S. consumer, and the safety of the American public from the adverse economic impact and health dangers posed from introducing counterfeit products into U.S. commerce.

The HSI counter-proliferation investigations program prevents the illicit procurement and export of sensitive U.S. technology and weapons and sanctions evasion by U.S. adversaries. HSI’s work in this area protects the U.S. warfighter, advances strategic defense interests and safeguards U.S. national security.

Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) is a directorate of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of over 10,400 employees consists of more than 7,100 Special Agents assigned to 220 cities throughout the United States, and 80 overseas locations in 53 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.

Updated: 03/02/2021