One million counterfeit N95 masks were seized by federal agents on Wednesday as part of a sweeping fraud investigation stemming from the global coronavirus pandemic, the head of the Department of Homeland Security announced.
The seizure brought the total number of knockoff masks that have been confiscated in recent weeks to more than 11 million, Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, said during a news conference.
Mr. Mayorkas appeared next to several boxes of masks that had been seized and were stamped with the name 3M, the largest remaining American producer of N95s.
Officials said that the company had been working with investigators to identify sources of counterfeit masks, which originated in China, and that the department expected to make arrests.
Officials declined to provide further details about the seizures, citing the continuing investigation. They said federal agents had executed search warrants in five states in the past two weeks but would not identify which ones.
The snug-fitting N95 masks, which provide 95 percent efficiency in filtering airborne particles, have become the gold standard for frontline workers in the pandemic. But the intense demand for the masks, which are considered superior to the ubiquitous pleated ones, has given rise to the production of counterfeit N95 masks.
Steve K. Francis, an assistant director for the Global Trade Investigations Division of Homeland Security Investigations, said during the news conference that there could be deadly repercussions from the sale of counterfeit N95 masks.
“They’re extremely dangerous,” Mr. Francis said. “They’re providing a false sense of security to our first line responders, to American consumers. I can’t stress how important it is to ensure that we have the legitimate 3M N95 masks that are being deployed to our first responders.”
He said that buying directly from 3M and the company’s authorized suppliers was secure but that consumers who went through outside channels might be exposed to fraud.
Mr. Mayorkas said the Department of Homeland Security would continue to aggressively pursue criminals who exploited the vulnerability of Americans “for a quick buck.”
“The seizures of these counterfeit surgical masks ensures the health and safety of our frontline health care workers, who so bravely combat the pandemic, by preventing them from receiving inferior personal protective equipment,” he said.
Mr. Mayorkas urged Americans to be leery of claims made by sellers of medical supplies.
“We just implore the public to be aware of websites or individuals selling products claiming to prevent, treat, diagnose or cure Covid-19,” he said.
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