Feds find 622K fake N95 masks intended for hospital system at Detroit warehouse

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Federal officials on Thursday seized about 622,000 counterfeit masks at a Detroit storage facility intended for a hospital system in the region. 

The discovery was part of an ongoing probe tied to a Chinese company that has distributed counterfeit face coverings across the country, Vance Callender, Homeland Security Investigations special agent in charge for Michigan and Ohio, told The Detroit News.

Investigators checking the company's import records to the United States learned of the haul headed to a warehouse in Detroit, he said.

A hospital system had spent some $3.5 million for the pieces, which were designed to resemble 3M N95 masks, Callender said. The hospital system was not identified.

Agents found the estimated 622,000 bogus masks Thursday at a Detroit storage facility.

3M, based in Maplewood, Minnesota, is among the largest global producers of the N95 mask, which has been approved by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and is considered the gold standard in protection against the coronavirus. The company delivered some 2 billion N95 masks in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic soared.

"It’s of grave concern because these masks are not going to be up to standard. It's going to put health care workers at risk. It’s going to put patients in the hospital at risk," Callender said. "This company in China is distributing these masks and profiting off their name and reputation and costing them business."

The hospital due to receive the masks cannot be identified while the investigation continues, he said.

Authorities do not believe other shipments were headed to the area, Callender said. "We're looking for importations from this company to make sure we get them off the streets."

This year, federal authorities said they were investigating a massive counterfeit N95 mask operation in which fake 3M masks were sold in multiple states to hospitals, medical facilities and government agencies.

In June, Homeland Security Investigations announced its special agents had seized more than 2 million counterfeit N95 masks purchased by the state of Maine.

HSI, which works with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and acts as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's main investigative arm, at that time said more than 10 million counterfeit 3M N95 respirators had been seized since 2020.

Callender said the company in China that distributed fake masks to Detroit had also been linked to shipments found in Seattle, New York and Arizona.

"All hospitals (involved) are assisting in the investigation and helping us collect evidence against the malicious company," he said. "As far as what we know right now, at least the perpetrators we know of, are in China. We don't have an extradition treaty with China, so hopefully, in the future, we're able to make some arrests."

The bogus masks are among the latest discovered in pandemic-related fraud efforts authorities have probed.

This week, federal prosecutors charged two people in connection with selling COVID-19 vaccination cards, including a Detroit man accused of selling counterfeit Chinese-made cards on Instagram and a nurse who sold legitimate cards for $200 each.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have seized shipments of thousands of vaccine cards at ports across the country, including this summer in Charlotte, North Carolina, Memphis, Tennessee and Honolulu, according to federal records.

The Federal Trade Commission reports pandemic-related fraud has flourished, costing consumers more than $564.5 million in losses, largely attributable to price-gouging.

Meanwhile, authorities on Tuesday announced four Metro Detroit residents were facing charges in a scheme involving more than $4 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds.

The Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency estimates it lost hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent claims.

Associated Press contributed.