Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers confiscated nearly 13 million counterfeit face masks since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the agency reported on Thursday, Feb. 4. Officers also seized some 178,000 prohibited COVID-19 test kits and 38,000 chloroquine tablets. Chloroquine is commonly used to treat malaria. It hasn’t been proven to be effective against COVID-19.
Other counterfeit COVID-19-related products seized included some 37,000 “anti-virus lanyards” that allegedly protect against infection. There are no studies proving these products to be effective. The lanyards also contain substances prohibited by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
And according to the CBP report, more than half of the products seized came from China. Last December, CBP officers in Cincinnati seized 10,080 counterfeit masks labeled “3M Mask Model 1860.” The shipment came from China. However, the boxes containing the masks were fraudulently labeled “Made in the USA.”
CBP officers in Cincinnati also intercepted 6,080 fake 3M masks in freight from Hong Kong that same month. Meanwhile, local customs officials in Chicago stopped a shipment from the city of Shenzhen in China. It contained some 500,000 counterfeit N95 masks that were destined for a company in New Jersey.
Brenda Smith, head of the CBP’s Office of Trade, said in an interview that the counterfeits were no big surprise. She added that the increased action against Chinese counterfeit products was the result of an “intense focus by the entire U.S. government.”
The seized items are typically destroyed and their importers notified. Companies or individuals expecting their shipments may be notified that the items are no longer available.
The CBP also doubled down on banning the imports of products made by forced labor. Officers issued a record number of 13 new withhold release orders in the 12-month period that ended on Sept. 30, 2020.
The Chinese government was previously condemned for detaining over one million ethnic minorities, many of them Uyghurs, Kazakh and Kyrgyz, in internment camps. Detainees are subject to torture, forced labor and political indoctrination sessions. The government insists the camps are “vocational training centers.”
Chinese manufacturers also reportedly take advantage of forced labor in prisons. Last August, a U.S. company was fined $575,000 for importing the sweetener Stevia and its derivatives after it was revealed that the Mongolia-based manufacturer used convicts or either forced or indentured labor to create the products.
According to the CBP report, officers also intercepted some 26,000 shipments with products that had violated U.S. intellectual property rights. China was also the top source of such products. The products would have had an estimated manufacturer’s suggested retail price of over $1.3 billion.
Last December, CBP officers in Los Angeles also seized three shipments from China containing fake items like knockoff Viagra pills, footwear, belts, purses, car emblems and headphones. That same month, CBP officers in New York seized counterfeit toys from China worth $1.3 million. (Related: Nearly 100 percent of the food coming from China is fraudulent or counterfeit, warns “food spies” expert.)
CBP officers are trained at flagging suspicious mask shipments. Nonetheless, some counterfeit masks and even unapproved respirators may still slip through the cracks and make it to the U.S. market.
N95 masks are considered the gold standard for mask usage among frontline healthcare workers. Here are tips for spotting counterfeit masks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
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