The Homeland Security Department, stepping up its pursuit of coronavirus frauds, seized more than 1 million fake N95 masks intended for front-line health workers and warned individuals against buying phony vaccines.
“There are trusted partners that distribute vaccines,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said at a news conference Wednesday. “There are trusted partners that manufacture and distribute legitimate masks, and we need to protect ourselves.”
Homeland Security Investigations, the criminal investigative arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has been probing frauds related to the pandemic since April. The inquiry started with criminals targeting money provided by the CARES Act (Public Law 116-136) and has since “morphed” into vaccine fraud, the unit’s acting executive associate director P.J. Lechleitner told reporters.
“Any avenue where the criminal enterprises can basically see an entree to either make some money, or defraud some individuals, is where we’re seeing it,” Lechleitner said.
Mayorkas urged Americans to continue masking and receiving vaccines while being wary of illegitimate enterprises. That is critical to keeping Americans safe as the Covid-19 pandemic kills people every day, he said.
The ICE investigations unit in recent weeks has seized more than 11 million counterfeit N95 masks and conducted multiple criminal search warrants against counterfeit mask operations in five states; the agency expects more enforcement actions in the coming weeks, Mayorkas told reporters. Criminal charges are forthcoming, Lechleitner said.
The agency “was able to work quickly on leads provided by 3M—a legitimate mask manufacturer, a household name—to track down the criminals who put the lives of hospital workers and first responders at risk, or who take advantage of our fears to make a quick buck,” Mayorkas said.
The fraudulent masks were coming from China, Steve Francis, director of ICE’s HSI intellectual property rights center, said. He emphasized that 3M Co. has a secure supply chain and that the fraud happened when people tried to order items from outside vendors.
To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org