3M files suit against fake PPE sellers profiting from COVID-19

Faced with a deluge of counterfeit personal protective equipment sold during the COVID-19 crisis, manufacturer 3M has taken to the courts to try to disrupt the illegal trade.

A lawsuit filed in California alleges that an Amazon seller named Mao Yu – fronting companies such as KM Brothers and affiliates such as KMJ Trading and Supreme Sunshine – sold N95 protective masks that falsely claimed to be genuine 3M products, often at vastly inflated prices.

The defendants “operated an illegal scheme to advertise and sell counterfeit, damaged, deficient, or otherwise altered respirators to unwitting customers…in need of personal protection equipment (PPE) to safeguard their health,” says the complaint, filed in a Los Angeles court this week.

The defendants posted listings on Amazon for what were purported to be 3M-branded N95 and other respirators at an average price of $23.21, a near 20-fold mark-up on the $1.27 that 3M charges for its genuine products – a price that hasn’t changed throughout the pandemic.

The lawsuit estimates that Yu et al charged customers more than $350,000 for the counterfeit 3M masks. The company is seeking monetary damages, along with fees and costs, that it says will be donated to charitable COVID-19 relief efforts.

The scale of the fraudulent activity regarding PPE is witnessed by a case last month in which New Jersey man Ronald Romano was arrested in connection with a $45m scheme to defraud and price gouge New York City during the pandemic by selling PPE for sale that he “did not possess and was not authorised to sell.”

Including this action, 3M says it has filed 12 lawsuits in federal courts across the country in its fight against fraud, price gouging, and counterfeiting, winning five temporary restraining orders and three preliminary injunction orders from courts to date “that put a stop to other defendants’ unlawful and unethical profiteering from the pandemic.”

At the same time, the company has been ramping up production of its PPE to meet burgeoning demand, and expects to have capacity of 2bn units a year by the end of 2020.

90 per cent of its respirators are going to healthcare and public health users, with the remaining deployed to other critical industries such as energy, food and pharmaceuticals.

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