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Feds seize 200,000 counterfeit surgical masks bound for Az hospitals

Federal agents seized more than 200,000 counterfeit N95 surgical masks over the last 45 days as part of an investigation launched by agents at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, authorities said this week. 

Officials estimated the masks were worth more than $1 million.

The investigation began in October, when agents with Homeland Security Investigations, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, went through a shipments of 3M N95 masks headed to a company in the Phoenix area. 

A sample mask was removed and sent to 3M, the company that makes many of the N95 masks used to protect medical workers from COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that has infected at least 19 million people in the United States and killed 333,524 Americans, according to the COVID Tracking Project. 

The company told HSI agents that the mask was counterfeit. 

In early December, HSI agents and officials with the Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General went to a small business in the area, and asked to see the masks they were selling, after the company was connected to another business selling counterfeit masks. During what officials called a "consensual examination," HSI special agents discovered the same counterfeit 3M N95 masks as the ones found at the airport weeks earlier. 

HSI agents seized 20,000 counterfeit masks at the warehouse. Following the seizure, agents recalled shipments of masks that were already sent to hospitals, and seized 10 pallets of masks, containing another 95,480 counterfeit 3M masks. 

Federal agents formed the Joint Prosecution and Enforcement Group, which includes U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and HSI agents at Sky Harbor International Airport, ultimately seizing 212,480 counterfeit 3M N95 masks.

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"Homeland Security Investigations and our partner agencies are committed to identify and seize these potentially hazardous medical products before they could harm our frontline workers," said Scott Brown, special agent in charge for HSI Phoenix. "These seizures illustrate the ongoing efforts of HSI, CBP and private industry in keeping our communities and medical staff safe and free from counterfeit products. Often, this battle is fought behind the scenes and unknown to the general public, but they can be assured that our mission remains firmly committed to protecting the health and safety of our medical workers, no matter what." 

“Customs and Border Protection is committed to protecting the American consumer against the substandard and potentially unsafe counterfeit consumer goods,” said Guadalupe Ramirez, director of CBP’s Tucson Field Office. “Enforcing Intellectual Property Rights laws is a CBP priority trade mission. We will continue to work closely with our trade and law enforcement partners to identify and seize counterfeit merchandise that could potentially harm our Nation’s consumers and businesses.”

Anthony Russo, the resident agent in charge for the VA's OIG said that his agent was responsible for overseeing the nation's largest health care system, and it was important to ensure that all health care workers "receive genuine, high-quality personal protective equipment," he said.  "The VA OIG will continue to work with its law enforcement partners to aggressively pursue any bad actors attempting to introduce counterfeit products into the VA and other medical supply chains," Russo said. 

HSI said that the investigation was part of Operation Stolen Promise, a program launched in April, to protect consumers from the "increasing and evolving threat" because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes looking at international operations and "cybercrime," as well as investigations on prohibited pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, e-commerce schemes, and other illicit criminal activities associated with the COVID-19 virus that could "compromise legitimate trade" or endanger the public.

The operation involves not only ICE and CBP, but 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. 

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A counterfeit N95 mask made to appear to be from 3M that was seized by Homeland Security Investigations at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in December.

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