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Customs officials have seized more than 20 million counterfeit masks since the start of the year


Since the start of the pandemic, CBP has seized more than 34 million counterfeit masks, most modeled to look like N95 or KN95 masks. About 20 million of these masks were captured in 2021, said John Leonard, acting executive deputy commissioner of the agency’s Office of Commerce.

“The mask is truly the most visible symbol of this pandemic,” Leonard told CNN. “[Counterfeiters] consider taking advantage of this situation. ”

Counterfeit masks resemble N95 respirators, considered the most effective mask in preventing transmission of the coronavirus, but do not offer the same level of protection, Leonard said. They may be missing some of the components that make N95 masks so effective, such as headbands to maintain a tight fit.
CNN reported in February that the agency seized 14 million counterfeit masks between the start of the pandemic and the end of 2020. That month, the number of masks officials seized “once again exploded,” said Leonard.

Authorities recently made two notable seizures: in February, more than 108,000 fake N95 masks – marketed under the 3M brand – were seized in Cincinnati. The following month, CBP found 65,000 fake respirators at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, also bearing the 3M logo.

Counterfeit masks make up most of the seizures, but CBP officers also seized around 180,000 unauthorized Covid-19 tests. Nearly 39,000 chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine tablets were seized, a step taken by the agency when drugs are imported into the United States without FDA approval. CBP did not provide any details on these tablets.

If consumers don’t know the products are ineffective, they could give users a “false sense of security,” which could increase transmission of the coronavirus, CBP said in a report.

Leonard attributes the rise in counterfeit seizures to continued demand for masks as the pandemic persists. It is possible, as more of the American population is vaccinated, that the amount of counterfeit masks attempting to enter the United States will decrease, Leonard said, depending on consumer demand.

Masks will always be a part of American life, even as millions more are vaccinated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages those vaccinated to continue to wear masks and maintain social distancing when in public. The agency is waiting to learn more about whether fully vaccinated people can still pass the coronavirus to others who are not vaccinated.

How to separate real masks from imitators

There are ways to demarcate the real thing from imitators.

Fake masks can have the following items, according to the CDC and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH):
  • No NIOSH approval. NIOSH only certifies mask respirators such as N95 masks if they filter at least 95% of particles. Without NIOSH approval, you cannot be sure your mask is also protective.
  • Earings. A real N95 mask has headbands instead of earrings, which help the mask form a seal against your face.
  • Sequins or other appliques. According to NIOSH, modifying an N95 mask in any way could make it less effective, and NIOSH does not approve a mask that has been changed or decorated.
  • The other says: Look for typos in product descriptions or on packaging. Incredibly low prices can be too good to be true. And if the seller says the mask is approved for children, it isn’t – NIOSH does not approve N95 masks for children.
The complete list of NIOSH approved N95 masks is available through the CDC.

CNN’s Maria Morava contributed to this report.

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