COVID-19: From counterfeit medical masks to fake treatments, criminals cashing in on pandemic panic

Adrian Humphreys

There’s nothing like a pandemic to bring out the worst in people.

Suspected counterfeit medical masks were stopped at the Canadian border and fake COVID-19 test kits seized at a U.S. airport. Bogus vaccines are selling online and putrid sanitizer factories crank out weak goop in Italy. Doses of what is claimed to be chloroquine, an unproven proposed treatment, are for sale on a Canadian dark web marketplace.

Criminals made a quick pivot to pandemic panic.

“Counterfeit goods sold during the corona crisis do not meet the required quality standards and pose a real threat to public health and safety. People who buy these fake products have a false sense of security, while they are, in fact, left unprotected,” said Catherine de Bolle, executive director of Europol, the law enforcement agency of the European Union, which has seen a flood of fakes.

And just like the contagion itself, the counterfeiters are finding their way to Canada.

An online dental equipment supply company with an address in Edmonton — but whose contact information leads to Shanghai, China — was offering questionable surgical masks, N95 masks and medical gloves through a website that is now offline after complaints.

Dubious quality masks, face shields, safety glasses and disinfectants, as well as supposed treatments, are sold in Canada through online retailers including those housed on Amazon and Facebook.

Health Canada recently issued a warning over masks and respirators that are claimed to be N95-rated — which is the gold standard for novel coronavirus protection — but are in fact substandard fakes.

The designation N95 means that qualified testing shows the mask blocks at least 95 per cent of small particles — such as dangerous pathogens — from passing through the mask.

Without the proper testing, false N95 or N95 equivalent masks likely do not meet the same performance level, and are unlikely to protect buyers from COVID-19.

Canada Border Services Agency confirmed border agents recently stopped shipments coming into Canada containing suspected fake personal protective equipment (PPE) — the masks, gloves, gowns and face shields used by frontline workers to protect themselves while treating COVID-19 patients.

The shipments were referred to Health Canada for testing to see if they meet Canadian standards, the agency said.

A counterfeit mask from a consignment found in Italy.

Guardia di Finanza

Few specifics or details have been provided by the CBSA; the agency would not say how many shipments were referred, where they came from or what the eventual outcome was. CBSA said they don’t specifically track such goods.

“Should goods be determined to be inadmissible, they may be ordered to be removed from Canada or seized by Health Canada. Health Canada is responsible for any additional enforcement activities under their legislation, such as laying charges,” said Rebecca Purdy, a CBSA spokeswoman. In cases involving suspected fraud, the RCMP could be called in.

In Europe, which has been particularly hard hit by COVID-19, the problem with fakes and unapproved treatments is profound.

Police in Italy have made a full-time job of raiding rancid blackmarket sanitizer factories, seizing huge shipments of faulty masks, falsely labelled protective equipment and bogus treatments and tests.

Europol has been analyzing the blackmarket since the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The threat from counterfeit products related to COVID-19, especially those aimed at the healthcare sector, emerged quickly and created a notable impact,” a recent Europol report says.

“The estimated profits from the trade of these goods are assessed to be substantial.”

Fake COVID-19 test kits.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection




The players remain largely the same — meaning organized crime groups previously involved in producing and distributing counterfeit goods such as high-end running shoes, designer clothing and fake sports jerseys quickly shifted to new health-related products to suit current demand.

Alongside the counterfeit PPE, which is often sold with forged safety rating certificates, European police are finding counterfeit pharmaceuticals linked to COVID-19.

“The counterfeiting of pharmaceutical products has been one of the most insidious forms of profiteering during a global pandemic. Counterfeiters have seized the opportunity to exploit the demand for drugs offering potential as treatment options in fighting COVID-19 infections,” says the Europol report.

European police found chloroquine — the potentially dangerous purported treatment that U.S. President Donald Trump has been publicly pushing — for sale on a popular Canadian dark web market called CanadaHQ.

Most of the counterfeit pharmaceuticals come from China and India, often using Turkey and Ukraine as transit countries.

We are taking urgent measures to protect consumers from illegal, false or misleading advertising of products claiming to mitigate, prevent, treat, diagnose, or cure COVID-19

In the United States, the FBI shut down and seized a website claiming the World Health Organization was distributing free COVID-19 vaccine kits, when no vaccine has yet been found. Those duped by the site were ensured they just had to pay a shipping fee.

Health Canada is also warning against bogus advertising claims for COVID-19 treatments or care.

Even an air duct cleaner was claiming its services offered “peace of mind” during the pandemic, and a UV-light system was for sale claiming it was “suitable” for COVID-19.

“We are taking urgent measures to protect consumers from illegal, false or misleading advertising of products claiming to mitigate, prevent, treat, diagnose, or cure COVID-19,” Health Canada said.

Police in Europe said there is one thing that will stop the flow of COVID-19 fakes: the development of a vaccine.

But police warn that that means crooks will be quick to peddle bogus versions of the vaccine, too.

“Particular attention should be paid to developments and criminal innovation if a genuine vaccine for COVID-19 is developed as this will likely prompt a wave of offers for counterfeit vaccines,” the Europol report says.

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