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

August 2017 tweet by former FDA
Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb.

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.

PSM did an entire episode on counterfeit masks, many of which were shipped via IMFs. Watch it here.

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 lanyard in packaging

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.

Ebay listing for a lanyard, June 8, 2020

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 covid19fraud@dhs.gov.

Sources for this week’s video and post:

There are many more scams we can’t fit into our weekly episodes. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Linkedin to get them. Read all our COVID-19 coverage.

Tell Congress to kick COVID-19 scammers off the Internet!

Watch our May 6, 2020 #COVIDscams episode to learn why.