3M is helping authorities stop scammers from selling counterfeit versions of its N95 masks

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Industrial giant 3M has been working around the clock with law enforcement to help stop the sale of millions of counterfeit versions of its N95 mask.

“We have taken very strong steps around attacking the problems of counterfeiting or price gouging. And that has occurred over the last year in this constrained supply and very strong demand environment on critical products such as the N95,” Mike Vale, who leads 3M’s safety and industrial business group, told CNBC.

N95s have been the gold standard during the coronavirus pandemic for their ability to filter out at least 95% of airborne particles. The masks, which are seen as critical in protecting front-line workers from Covid-19, have been in short supply. 3M is the largest N95 manufacturer.

Federal authorities announced Wednesday that scammers have distributed millions of fake N95s to health-care workers in at least five states. So far, 11,000 cases of the counterfeit masks have been reported by 3M, leading to 29 civil lawsuits. In total, the company said it’s seized 10 million fake N95s. In mid-January, 3M helped its home state of Minnesota avoid buying nearly 500,000 counterfeit N95s from a Florida company. 3M sued and ended up winning an injunction.

News of the federal investigation into the counterfeit N95s comes as several hospitals across Washington state found out that their supply of the masks contained fakes.

“It’s a stunning feeling … just to think that there are people … out manufacturing counterfeit personal protective equipment that we need right now so badly during this pandemic,” Cassie Sauer, president of the Washington State Hospital Association, told NBC News earlier this week.

3M helped officials in Washington confirm that the fake masks were purchased from an unauthorized distributor, which had no relationship with the company. 3M cautions that hospitals and medical clinics need to check that they’re procuring respirators from a verified, authorized distributor. One way to do that is by checking the company’s website or calling its anti-fraud hotline.

Despite concerted efforts to shut down fraudsters and hold them accountable, phony masks continue to pop up across the United States and world. “Fake N95s pose a serious health risk and I think 3M has been appropriately aggressive in getting them off the street. It’s a game of whack-a-mole though, get rid of one and another pops up,” said Scott Davis, CEO of Melius Research, who has been following 3M’s evolution for several years.

In terms of production, 3M is now making more than 95 million respirators a month at its U.S. plants in South Dakota and Nebraska. By scaling production and hiring hundreds of additional workers, including 300 at its plant in South Dakota, the company has been able to quadruple production over the past year.

Yet a number of doctors who spoke with CNBC said they are still rationing masks.

“Obtaining enough N95s to safely cover health-care workers has an unsolved challenge, especially for the smaller hospitals and health-care facilities. Having to negotiate around counterfeit products makes it even more fraught and impossible to ensure adequate protection for our front line,” said Dr. Natasha Anushri Anandaraja, who started Covid Courage, a nonprofit organization in New York helping health-care workers get access to PPE, including N95s and reusable masks.

Due to limited supply, Anandaraja said that more medical workers are opting for reusable options. “Providing each health-care worker with their own reusable mask will eliminate the constant struggle to find legitimate disposable masks and will eliminate the need for health-care workers to reuse masks that were meant for one-time use, and will save health systems hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.”

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