Feds warn about counterfeit COVID-19 vaccines

BOSTON — Criminals have found opportunities to scam others during the pandemic.

In the spring, they targeted unemployment benefits systems across the country, including Massachusetts, filing thousands of bogus claims. Now, homeland security officials say items meant to protect individuals from the virus are being targeted.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection tells 25 Investigates’ Ted Daniel there’s a surge of counterfeit pandemic-related goods, such as COVID-19 tests, personal protection equipment (PPE) and antibiotics, hitting the country. The agency says it has credible intelligence that criminal networks may be eyeing the COVID-19 vaccine too.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in the amount of small packages coming from all over the world, many from Asia and China in particular, said John Leonard, Executive Director, Trade Policy and Programs, at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “Just a huge rise in counterfeit and unsafe goods that come in these small packages for e-commerce shipments.”

Leonard says his agents are screening shipments at more than 300 ports of entry around the country. Here in Boston, a shipment of 20,000 counterfeit N-95 masks was recently seized.

Nationwide, CPB has confiscated 13.5 million counterfeit respirator masks, 177, 000 unapproved COVID-19 test kits, 6,000 fake antibiotic pills and phony hand sanitizers.

Counterfeits are typically inferior to the real items and can be dangerous, especially when it comes to PPE or medicine.

Leonard says it’s unlikely counterfeit goods end up in reputable venues, like pharmacies. He adds that most of this stuff is sold online to unsuspecting customers.

“The big platforms such as Amazon and eBay are absolutely not immune to counterfeiting. They do employ staffs to try to make sure that counterfeits are not getting on their sites. But just because of the sheer volume of business that they’re doing, it’s going to happen,” said Leonard.

With Pfizer and Moderna on the verge of getting their COVID-19 vaccines approved in the U.S., the agency expects counterfeit versions of the life-saving vaccine will appear soon thereafter.

Experts say legitimate vaccines will be made available via a network of trusted providers, like hospitals, doctors’ offices, health departments and pharmacies.

CBP reminds the public to not accept items from unapproved or questionable sources, particularly vaccines or medical supplies.

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