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Criminals are cashing in on our demand for common household products. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers across the country have intercepted hundreds of items including fake COVID-19 test kits, phony hand sanitizer and diluted disinfectants.
In the Southwest, CBP officers in El Paso, Texas, and Nogales, Ariz., have been on high alert to stop these products from crossing our borders and entering the U.S.
“I think we kind of thought as the coronavirus hit our shores that I think everybody recognized right away that this is going to be an opportunity that criminals will take advantage of,” said Scott Brown, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Phoenix special agent in charge.
Since early March, the coronavirus pandemic has emptied shelves, leaving many Americans struggling to get essentials like bleach, medicine, masks, and thermometers.
Brown says criminals spotted our increased demand and took advantage of the situation by selling fake or diluted versions of these products.
“Certainly our demand for cleaning products or personal protective equipment is higher than its ever been and they see an opportunity to make a profit in that and unfortunately they’re taking it,” Brown said.
Officers are making busts across the country. In Baltimore, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers seized shipments of counterfeit and unapproved coronavirus personal protective equipment and pharmaceuticals.
In El Paso, they’ve found everything from non-federally compliant thermometers and bleach to cold medicine, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer.
CPB Officers intercepted a large shipment of unlabeled gel product and diluted bleach. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection)
“Potentially some of the cold medicines could have something that has not been FDA approved…and the same thing for the masks… if they don’t meet our standards they could potentially harm whoever is using that,” said U.S. Customs and Border Protection El Paso Port Director Beverly Good.
“We are seeing it in vehicles here, we’re also seeing it in some of the downstream mail shipments that are coming from international to the United States, we’re seeing it in large trucks, we’re seeing it in conveyances, we’re seeing some people bringing it by hand, walking across, so every different conveyance they’re trying to bring it in so we are looking closely for that kind of stuff,” Good added.
In Phoenix, special agents with ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations said they intercepted a shipment of fake COVID-19 test kits coming from China into Sky Harbor International Airport.
Down at the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales, special agents with HSI and CBP officers assigned to the Trade Enforcement Coordination Center (TECC) have confiscated approximately 900 bottles of diluted bleach.
Nogales TECC has seized 900 bottles of diluted bleach at the U.S.-Mexico border. (HSI)
“We are adapting to threats that we haven’t seen before. … Criminals will take any opportunity to make an illicit profit,” Brown said. “I thought of the financial fraud and the PPE-related fraud, I credit our agents and the CBP officers in Nogales for thinking about the cleaning products. ... It was good boots-on-the-ground effort on their part to identify that as a potential threat”.
Officials say as long as there’s high demand in the U.S. criminals will find ways to make a profit and bring it into the country.
“I think this is going to go on for as long as we are dealing with the coronavirus in one way, shape or form, and I think that’s going to be for the unforeseeable future but we are committed to keeping this push on for as long as we need to,” Brown said.
ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations launched Operation Stolen Promise as a way to fight back against COVID-19-related crime. As of April 23, HSI special agents already had intercepted over $3 million of illicit proceeds across the country.
Its S.T.O.P. COVID-19 Fraud Campaign is a key public outreach component of the operation. Officiers are providing facts, tips, and red flags to the public to help recognize potential fraud and to report it.
Anyone suspecting fraud or criminal activity can email COVID19Fraud@DHS.gov.