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Watered-down bleach seized in Nogales in COVID-19 scam crackdown

Federal agents seized approximately 900 bottles of diluted Clorox bleach in Nogales, Ariz., over the last three weeks as part of a nationwide effort to clamp down on illegal efforts to profit from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Agents with Homeland Security Investigations, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers assigned to the Trade Enforcement Coordination Center seized the adulterated Clorox after discovering during preliminary testing showed that the bleach bottles were "significantly diluted with water making them ineffective," the agency said in a news release Wednesday. 

"This investigation serves as a stark reminder that criminals will even exploit a global pandemic in their quest for illegal profit," said Scott Brown, special agent in charge for HSI Phoenix. "While ongoing, this investigation has been successful in keeping hundreds of bottles of cleaning products, rendered useless by illicit tampering, out of our homes and businesses. HSI and our partnered agencies are committed to identifying and dismantling these schemes that pose a significant health and safety risk to U.S. consumers."

The novel coronavirus, identified by researchers as SARS-CoV-2, has infected more than 1 million people and killed more than 55,000 since the first U.S. case was identified in mid-January. 

Dubbed Operation Stolen Promise by ICE officials, HSI special agents and CBP officials are working with the FDA, tPostal Inspection Service, Secret Service, IRS and FBI to develop and prosecute cases. This also includes the international Five Eyes Law Enforcement Working Group—an intelligence alliance that includes the U.S., the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

In addition to ICE agents in Nogales, agents from the HSI's finance, cyber crimes, and international operations components are also working to investigate counterfeit or diluted products, authorities said.

Launched in direct response to a significant increase in criminal activity, HSI agents opened 232 cases, which include seizures of 225 shipments of "mislabeled, fraudulent, unauthorized or prohibited" COVID-19 test kits, as well as treatment kits, homeopathic remedies, purported anti-viral products and personal protective equipment. HSI agents have also seized more than $3 million in proceeds from illicit products, and targeted over 11,000 potential websites whose domain names were suspect, said Yasmeen Pitts-O'Keefe, an ICE spokeswoman.

At least six people have been arrested, she said. 

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On April 1, HSI agents arrested a British man in Los Angeles after agents discovered he was repacking a mixture of Vitamin C, potassium salts, enzymes and hydrogen peroxide and selling them as "Trinity COVID-19 SARS Antipathogenic Treatment kits." The kits have not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat COVID-19 – or for any other use, ICE officials said. 

"Every major health authority has warned that there is no specific antiviral treatment for COVID-19 and no vaccine to prevent coronavirus infection. New drugs may not be legally introduced or delivered for introduction into interstate commerce without prior FDA approval," the agency said. 

"With the global pandemic, we quickly recognized that a criminal element was going to take advantage," said Brown in an interview with TucsonSentinel.com. 

In recent weeks, HSI agents working with CBP in Nogales began focusing on "trade-related crime," Brown said. As the agency began identifying products, including fake COVID-19 testing kits and counterfeit medicines, agents in Nogales also decided to investigate counterfeit and adulterated products, he said. 

Over March and April, CBP officers at the Mariposa commercial port noticed an increase of imported products known in demand because of shortages related to COVID-19. Special agents began investigating how and where these products we attempting to make their way into the United States, and found that several U.S. businesses were importing Clorox, toilet paper, and other related items from distributors in Mexico. Many household products manufactured in Mexico are not meant for U.S. domestic consumption, including Clorox, and the products marked for import have EPA compliant labels detailing ingredients, directions, warnings and uses.

Over the last month, agents investigated and tested three shipments of Clorox because they did not have the required labeling, and found that they were diluted. While the products could have been sold in Mexico according to the labeling, Brown said that Clorox was also too diluted for Mexico's market too.

"It's important to keep these products out of the hands of people who might otherwise use them and feel a sense of security that they trust this product," Brown said. 

Brown said that HSI agents were still working on identifying who was profiting from importing the diluted Clorox and the investigation was ongoing. 

"All across the country, HSI and all of law enforcement at working collaboratively to protect people from harmful products and ineffective" personal protective equipment, Brown said. 

In mid-March, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona announced a "fraud coordinator" assigned to investigate and prosecute crimes related to the coronavirus.

U.S. Attorney Michael Bailey said in March that because his office has "already started receiving reports" about people trying to use the COVID-19 crisis to "defraud others," he appointed Knapp to serve as a legal counsel for the federal district on "matters relating to the virus," including leading investigations based on reports of fraud related to virus. 

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Diluted Clorox bleach seized by Homeland Security Investigations agents in Nogales, Arizona in April.