The COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the best and worst facets of humanity. But nothing highlights the worst in human nature more than the corrupted individuals exploiting this global crisis to peddle their counterfeit and non-compliant PPE. From forging CE certifications, to posing as legitimate manufacturers, fake mask merchants have been stopping at nothing to make a profit, regardless of the human lives they endanger.
Counterfeit face masks have been a global problem since the WHO issued their advisory for face coverings to slow the spread of COVID-19 back in March 2020. An organized scam, it seems, from which even the Swiss government is not immune. This was revealed this summer when the nations’ own military fell victim to counterfeit PPE.
The pandemic has left many peoples’ livelihoods in ruins, but for others it has brought only good fortune. Among them, two young entrepreneurs from Zurich, becoming multimillionaires in the short time since the pandemic began, selling PPE via their company EMIX trading. That is, until headlines broke revealing over 700,000 FFP2 respirators they had sold to the Swiss army were counterfeit, and unusable. Many of which were infested with harmful pathogenic mould. So far, over 100,000 respirators have been incinerated or destroyed, without any compensation from the supplier.
Fake surgical masks and FFP respirators pose a serious threat to not only healthcare workers, (and the Swiss military) but the average citizen. This is because the majority of counterfeits simply cannot protect the wearer from the spread of the coronavirus, and those packed and stored in unsanitary environments can be mould infested and pathogenic in their own right. Former sweatshops in countries like Turkey and China have switched production from fake designer brand clothing, to fake FFP2 respirators and PPE. Falsifying EU CE certificates and in some cases, labelling their products with Dräger and 3M logos. Without proper equipment, this PPE is manufactured in unsanitary conditions, by untrained and underpaid staff. Often haphazardly stuffed into boxes without plastic packaging to keep them sterile (if they were ever sterile to begin with).
Another deceptive technique that has been adopted by counterfeiters, is passing off CE certifications with no legal significance in Europe for similar certifications that do hold legal significance. For example, the Notified Body (NB) Universal Certification issues
the CE certificate ‘EU Type Examination Certificate’ with the NANDO code ‘2163’. This code appears next to the CE mark on all FFP2 respirators that comply with EU regulations. However, this Notified Body also issues another, similar, certificate called a ‘Certificate of Compliance’ with the exact same NANDO code. But, this document is simply an internal certification for the manufacturer, and holds absolutely no legal significance in the EU.
While the pandemic rages on, the demand for personal protective equipment and especially facial coverings, is only getting stronger. This has caused a worrisome trend in the industry, and more opportunistic scammers are seeing potential in the counterfeit market. Brand new companies with no experience with selling PPE popping up every day, surgical masks and FFP2 respirators are being offered at extremely low prices, with very questionable origins. And, while the European Union tries to keep legislation caught up, scammers are getting more sophisticated and many counterfeit manufacturers are slipping under the radar.
Fortunately, as a consumer, there are things that you can do to make sure the products you’re receiving are legitimate. First, and most importantly, always buy from trusted suppliers. Ideally companies with history and experience in the PPE industry. Next, the product should include a standard number, a manufacturer name (or logo), an EU CE marking, and the notified body number. Check that the certificate, DoC, and product packaging contain all of this information, and that they all match each other. Check the packaging for misspelt words or grammatical errors, and feel the quality of the product. There are no guarantees, but these steps can help in identifying dangerous counterfeit before it’s too late.