WASHINGTON -- Millions of counterfeit masks have been seized by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials since the start of the pandemic. But the last few months have seen an "exponential increase" in counterfeit mask seizures, a CBP official told CNN.
Since the start of the pandemic, CBP has seized more than 34 million counterfeit masks, most of them modeled to resemble N95 or KN95 masks. Around 20 million of those masks were caught in 2021, said John Leonard, acting executive assistant commissioner of the agency's Office of Trade.
"The mask is really the most visible symbol of this pandemic," Leonard told CNN. "(Counterfeiters) look into taking advantage of this situation."
The counterfeit masks resemble N95 respirators, considered the most effective mask in preventing coronavirus transmission, but don't offer the same level of protection, Leonard said. They might be missing some of the components that make N95 masks so effective, such as headbands to maintain a sealed fit.
CNN reported in February that the agency had seized 14 million counterfeit masks from the beginning of the pandemic to the end of 2020. That month, the amount of masks officials were seizing "blew up again," Leonard said.
Officials made two notable seizures recently: In February, more than 108,000 fake N95 masks -- marketed using 3M's branding -- were seized in Cincinnati. The next month, CBP found 65,000 fake respirators at Chicago O'Hare International Airport, also bearing 3M's logo.
Counterfeit masks make up most of the seizures, but CBP officers have also seized around 180,000 unauthorized Covid-19 tests. Nearly 39,000 chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine tablets were seized, a measure the agency takes when drugs are imported into the US without FDA approval. CBP provided no details on these tablets.
If consumers don't know the products are ineffective, they could give users a "false sense of security," which could further coronavirus transmission, CBP said in a report.
Leonard attributes the uptick in counterfeit seizures to the ongoing demand for masks as the pandemic endures. It's possible, as more of the US population is vaccinated, that the amount of counterfeit masks attempting to enter the US will fall, Leonard said, based on consumer demand.
Masks will still be a part of American life, even as millions more people are vaccinated.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages people who've been vaccinated to continue to wear masks and maintain social distancing when they're in public. The agency is waiting to learn more about whether fully vaccinated people can still transmit coronavirus to others who aren't vaccinated.
How to separate real masks from the imitators
Fake masks may have the following, according to the CDC and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH):
No NIOSH approval. NIOSH only certifies facepiece respirators like N95 masks if they filter at least 95% of particles. Without NIOSH approval, you can't be sure your mask is equally protective.
Ear loops. A true N95 mask has headbands instead of ear loops, which help the mask form a seal against your face.
Sequins or other appliques. Per NIOSH, altering an N95 mask in any way could make it less effective, and NIOSH doesn't approve a mask that's been changed or decorated.
Other tells: Look for typos in product descriptions or on packaging. Unbelievably low prices may be too good to be true. And if the seller says the mask is approved for children, it's not -- NIOSH doesn't approve N95 masks for kids.
The full list of NIOSH-approved N95 masks is available through the CDC.
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