June 24, 2020 #covidscams video: CBP Seizures of Fake COVID-19 Products Top 1 Million
A crisis can bring out the best in people, but, as our pandemic coverage makes clear, it also brings out scammers looking to make a quick buck. Though it went unmarked, the Department of Homeland Security blew past a grim milestone this month: 1 million fake COVID-19 products seized: fake and substandard personal protective equipment like masks, counterfeit test kits, black market medicine, unapproved thermometers, and fake treatments like colloidal silver or bleach.
International Mail Facilities: Where Fake Products Get Caught
Many of these seizures take place at one of the U.S.’s nine International Mail Facilities (IMFs), which screen small international packages before they enter the U.S. At IMFs, the Postal Service sends packages to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents for examination, and CBP forwards many imported medicine products on to Food and Drug Administration inspectors.
It is difficult to explain the scale of work at IMFs. In fiscal year 2017, 275 million packages passed through these nine screening facilities. The IMF at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York alone processes approximately one million packages a day. Despite the hard work of CBP and FDA, the sheer volume of packages means that most fake COVID-19-related products and counterfeit medicines go unexamined.
A Toxic Oddity: The "Virus Shut Out" lanyard
One of the stranger COVID-19 seizures are “Virus Shut Out” lanyards, fraudulent products that scammers are shipping to the U.S. as COVID-19 protection. They are cards coated in chlorine dioxide, an industrial bleach which has also been marketed by scammers as a drinkable all-purpose miracle cure. The lanyard is supposed to hang around a person’s neck, protecting the wearer from any viruses in the air, sort of like wearing a necklace made of garlic wards off vampires. In one eBay listing, a seller claimed Virus Shut Out would repel bacteria and viruses “within one meter of the wearer’s body, just like a portable air cleaner with its own protective cover.”
Virus Shut Out lanyards are most dangerous because they inspire false confidence: they have no effect on the spread of COVID-19. If they were somehow potent enough to kill viruses a meter away, however, they could be harmful. Chlorine dioxide can safely be used to disinfect surfaces and disinfect water, but depending on the level and kind of exposure, it can cause nose, throat and lung irritation; shortness of breath and other respiratory problems; swelling of the throat and mouth, stomach pain and vomiting.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued its first warning about Virus Shut Out lanyards in March after shipments were seized in Honolulu and Guam on their way to the United States. In a second warning issued in April, both the EPA and CBP stated that these lanyards also violate federal pesticide laws: a Georgia resident who sold them on eBay pleaded guilty to violating the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act at the end of May.
The EPA also met with U.S. retailers and third-party marketplaces in April to discuss halting the sale of fraudulent coronavirus disinfectants like these, not just lanyards, but also fake disinfectant tablets, sprays and wipes. Platforms like Facebook and eBay continue to remove listings for these products, but sellers keep re-listing them.
If you see these lanyards or similar fake COVID-19 products online or in a store, please report them to FDA’s Health Fraud Program or the Office of Criminal Investigations at FDA-COVID-19-Fraudulent-Products@fda.hhs.gov. If you have been targeted by or have been a victim of a COVID-19 scam, contact the Department of Homeland Security at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources for this week’s video and post:
- “Chlorine Dioxide,” Wikipedia.
- “CBP Continues to Seize Large Number of Counterfeit and Unapproved COVID-19 Products,” U.S. CBP, June 5, 2020.
- “CBP Birmingham Officers Seize Unapproved Thermometers,” U.S. CBP, June 12, 2020.
“EPA Administrator Wheeler Talks with Retailers and Third-Party Marketplace Platforms to Discuss Steps to Protect American Consumers from Fraudulent Coronavirus Disinfectant Claims,” U.S. EPA, April 3, 2020
- “Federal Judge Enters Temporary Injunction Against Genesis II Church of Health and Healing, Preventing Sale of Chlorine Dioxide Products Equivalent to Industrial Bleach to Treat Covid-19,” U.S. FDA, April 17, 2020.
- “Georgia Woman Pleads Guilty to COVID-19 Related Federal Offense for Selling Unregistered Pesticides on eBay,” U.S. Department of Justice, May 29, 2020.
- “International Mail Facilities,” U.S. FDA, last updated April 12, 2019.
- “U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the International Mail Facilities,” U.S. FDA, last updated April 2019.
- “U.S. EPA Acts to Protect the Public from Unregistered “Virus Shut Out” Product Imported into Honolulu and Guam,” U.S. EPA, March 25, 2020
- “U.S. EPA and CBP Act to Protect the Public from Unregistered “Virus Shut Out” Product Imported into California,” U.S. EPA, April 23, 2020.
- Maxine Bernstein, “Gresham Man Accused of Smuggling Misbranded Chloroquine from China to Resell for Coronavirus Treatment,” The Oregonian, May 11, 2020.
- Chris Gillis, “CBP Grabs Fake Shipment of COVID-19 Test Kits at LAX,” American Shipper, March 16, 2020.
- Juliet Linderman, Martha Mendoza and The Associated Press, “‘It’s Just Unprecedented’: Counterfeit Face Masks Are Reaching Frontline Health Care Workers in U.S.,” Fortune, May 13, 2020.
- Abby Narishkin and Steve Cameron, “JFK Is America's Largest Mail Room. Here's How Customs Searches 1 Million Mail Packages a Day for Drugs and Counterfeit Goods,” September 23, 2019.
- Matthew Schwartz, “Missouri Sues Televangelist Jim Bakker For Selling Fake Coronavirus Cure,” National Public Radio, March 11, 2020.