Amid crackdown, authorities warn of coronavirus scams and counterfeit products

FAR WEST TEXAS — As coronavirus concerns lead to supply chain shortages and panic buying, federal authorities are warning they’ve seen a rash of coronavirus scams and counterfeit medical products.

But authorities aren’t just issuing warnings. They’re also cracking down.

Over the past month, local police and federal law enforcement have seized counterfeit medical supplies and made arrests across the country, from Florida to Washington.

In Ohio, police seized $600,000 of fake coronavirus test kits. In Baltimore, customs agents seized thousands of unapproved or fake masks, tests and medicines — including doses of hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial drug that President Donald Trump has promoted as an unproven treatment for coronavirus.

In California, a woman was arrested for selling fake coronavirus tests on Craigslist. Meanwhile in Washington, the state’s attorney general intervened to stop a company from selling fake coronavirus vaccines.

The Big Bend is no exception to these trends. Here, border authorities say they’ve seen criminal organizations repurpose old drug and smuggling routes to meet the growing demand for bunk coronavirus products.

But the counterfeits aren’t strictly limited to medical products. In March, as panic buying led to empty shelves at grocery stores, U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized hundreds of boxes of fake Clorox- and Pinol-branded cleaners.

In that case, the smuggler showed border authorities a manifest declaring that he was transporting cleaning products. But authorities were suspicious. They noticed that the products had “no safety seals” and “appeared to have been tampered with,” while the ostensibly bleach-based cleaners “lacked the familiar bleach scent.”

Chemical analysis of the products later confirmed the agents’ suspicions: the “primary ingredient” in the products was “only water,” according to CBP.

In the months since, though, the surplus of fake coronavirus-related products has only grown, in the Big Bend and beyond. Earlier this month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement partnered with multiple companies, including Amazon and drug company Pfizer, in an effort to slow the wave of counterfeits.

More locally, border authorities in El Paso this month thwarted at least two attempts to smuggle counterfeit or unapproved coronavirus products across the border.

First, on May 16, authorities stopped a man who was traveling to Mexico at the Santa Teresa port of entry in El Paso after determining there were “inconsistencies in his story.” They searched his belongings and found 1,000 counterfeit coronavirus tests.

A day later, a woman tried to cross the Ysleta Port of Entry in El Paso with thousands of face masks and face mask filters, along with dozens of bottles of hand sanitizer. The products “lacked proper registration” and were also seized, authorities said.

In a statement, CBP condemned what they said is a rise in smuggled coronavirus products.

“Some [people] appear to be exploiting the pandemic for financial gain, leaving the consumer at risk,” said Hector Mancha, the CBP director for field operations in El Paso. “These products may result in serious consequences to the consumer, whether that end user is in the United States or another country.”

A spokesman for the Big Bend Sector also said they were aware of a rise of smuggled counterfeit products. But with migrant traffic down during the coronavirus crisis, he warned smugglers that “we’ve got a lot more agents” to intercept such operations.

“They’ll dilute cleaning products. They’ll create fake test kits,” the spokesperson said. “These are transnational criminal organizations trying to make money off of people’s fears.”

It isn’t just smuggled products, though: opportunists in the United States are also getting in on the trend.

In a lengthy warning to consumers last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it was “concerned” about fake coronavirus medicines and other products that “might cause Americans to delay or stop appropriate medical treatment, leading to serious and life-threatening harm.”

Over the course of the coronavirus crisis, the agency has sent warning letters to at least 58 companies, telling them they must stop selling fraudulent products with claims to prevent, treat, mitigate, diagnose or cure” coronavirus.

The offending products run the gamut from vitamin supplements and liquid silver to products with names like “IMMUNE SHOT” and “nCoV19 spike protein vaccine.”

Most recently, the agency sent letters last week to companies in Florida and Washington that were allegedly selling unapproved vaccines and marketing Vitamin C as treatment for coronavirus.

The agency gave the companies 48 hours to comply with federal drug laws and pointed to multiple misleading statements. The Florida company, for example, had advertised that “Vitamin C can be your secret weapon against the Coronavirus!”

But for readers who fancy themselves savvy consumers, the alleged fraud unfortunately doesn’t stop with unapproved or counterfeit products. The Federal Trade Commission is also warning of fake charities and other scams designed to “steal your money, your identity, or both.”

The scams range from robocalls and fake charities to phishing emails designed to steal people’s personal information or install ransomware on their computers, the agency warned. And some of the scams have been sophisticated.

In March, a scammer managed to use the online domain name for the World Health Organization to send an email asking for donations. The scam might have caused more damage were it not for one big red flag: It asked for bitcoin, a virtual currency not typically used by international health groups.