Federal investigators uncovered a scheme to fraudulently sell N95 respirator masks to U.S. healthcare professionals. According to a report from the Los Angeles Times, two foreign parties attempted to scam hospitals out of money by falsely claiming to have around 39 million masks available to sell to workers dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Scott Brady, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, explained the Justice Department’s attempt to head off this scheme. Brady said that in the past month, the parties involved tried to sell masks to hospitals by claiming that supply was on-hand in the U.S. and asking for a 40% upfront payment.

Investigators, however, believe that these masks do not actually exist. The scam was halted before any medical facilities transferred funds.

A task force was set up by the Justice Department to counter the hoarding of essential medical equipment during the coronavirus pandemic. This task force discovered this scheme when a California medical workers union claimed to have met with a supplier offering 39 million respirator masks. This triggered considerable skepticism, as 3M had only made around 20 million masks across all of 2019.

Eventually, the supplier was found to be a man in Pittsburgh acting as a go-between for the foreign parties, identified as a broker in Australia and a supplier in Kuwait. The unnamed man is cooperating with federal investigators and is not believed to have known about the fraudulent scheme.

“We believe we disrupted fraud,” Brady said. “We are seeing fraud in every variation, but mostly in respect to N95 masks. We have an anxious public, and resources are strained.”

US hospitals and other health facilities are in critical need of personal protective equipment like masks as the country battles the coronavirus pandemic
U.S. hospitals and other health facilities were in critical need of personal protective equipment like masks as the country battled the coronavirus pandemic. AFP / Bryan R. Smith