In some countries, the supply of COVID-19 related equipment is being further hampered by unscrupulous marketeers hoarding PPE to profit from the shortage. In Brooklyn, New York the FBI arrested a dealer who was in possession of 30,000 surgical masks, procedure masks, surgical gowns, disinfectant towels, particulate filters, bottles of hand sanitiser, and bottles of spray disinfectant. All of which is in violation of an executive order issued by the US Department of Health and Human Services that makes it illegal to hoard certain scarce health and medical resources.
In response to the increased levels of fraud surrounding PPE in the US, the Department of Homeland Security recently launched Operation Stolen Promise, as agents investigated criminals selling counterfeit PPE, unregulated coronavirus medications and COVID-19 tests.
‘Fake goods, dangerous goods, defrauding customers,’ said Jim Phillips, Assistant Special Agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Jacksonville, Florida. The crooks are largely trying to sell the goods through illicit websites, dark web and phishing emails.
Working with US Customs, HSI agents recently seized black market hydroxychloroquine, allegedly in a shipment from China, which some believe is a treatment for the coronavirus.
In Europe, a similar picture is emerging. Catherine de Bolle, Executive Director of Europol, summed up the increase in counterfeiting activity and the risks these pose in the following statement: ‘counterfeit goods sold during the COVID-19 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.’
In Australia, Australian Border Force (ABF) officers have intercepted several deliveries of PPE that have been found to be counterfeit or otherwise faulty.
One law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, estimated the ABF had already seized 800,000 masks coming into the Australian market. ‘The dodgy material is coming via air cargo because there is a backlog of sea freight at Australian ports’, the official said.
In addition to these clear incidents of fraud, at least two safety federations have highlighted the confusion surrounding compliance procedures for PPE which has allowed some organisations to make false claims as to the performance of the goods they are selling.
According to the British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF), the prominence of fake certificates for PPE has increased over the past few weeks. The federation has produced a guide to offer advice on how to check if the supporting documentation for your PPE is genuine and what to do if you are concerned.
The BSIF has stated that many well-known brands and authorised test houses are being targeted, with products being offered that make claims of compliance to BS, EN & ISO standards.
Meanwhile the European Safety Foundation (ESF) has been made aware, from a range of sources, that ‘certificates’ or other documents used as the basis for ‘CE’ marking on PPE have been falsely issued or simply counterfeited. The CE marking should signify that the PPE products sold in the European Economic Area (EEA) have been assessed to meet high safety, health, and environmental protection requirements.
One example cited by the ESF highlights the lengths to which the counterfeiters will go to falsely claim accreditation for selling PPE. The Ecole Supérieure du Bois is a higher educational institute in France but its name was used together with the name Euroscene Business Solutions Ltd to lend credibility to the performance of PPE goods. According to the Ecole Supérieure du Bois it does not even issue certificates for PPE and has no relationship with Euroscene Business Solutions.
Another example quoted by the ESF is of EU-type examination certificates being purportedly issued by the UK standards body, BSI, when in fact the document has been altered and is a fake.
The ESF admits that it is possible that the PPE in question might be safe even if the documents are not correct. But it is frustrated that, whilst the priority at the moment is to get as much high quality PPE to healthcare workers as possible so that they can be adequately protected, the federation is using its limited resources to protect the compliance process from dishonest operators.