Fake N95 Coronavirus Masks - How to Identify This Scam

Consumers have sought out the protection of N95 masks and searched online. But scammers have been selling fake products. 14+ million masks have been seized by US Customs

Cameron Craig
Updated 10 February 2021
Fake N95 Coronavirus Masks - How to Identify This Scam
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United States Counterfeit Goods Statistics

$1.3 billion in counterfeit items seized each year
$200 billion yearly loss to businesses

$959 billion (estimated value of the counterfeit market by 2022)

Source: Library of U.S. Congress

Sections on this page
  1. How to Check if Your Mask is Real
  2. Counterfeit N95 masks Do Not Pass Filtration tests
  3. How to Avoid Buying Fake N95 Masks

During 2020, US Customs has prevented the importation of over 14.6 million counterfeit N95 face masks and respirators. The N95 mask is the most reliable mask type for the safety it offers, in particular the fact that it will filter at least 95% of airborne particles.

The US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health certifies face masks and their filtration capacity. Prior to the pandemic, the N95 standard masks were worn by painters and those in spray based occupations due to their certified 95%+ filtration. 

For Americans searching for N95 masks for their implied safety in the pandemic, especially frontline workers, the counterfeit N95 mask scam is particularly cruel. 

This scam appears to be an online scam with foreign manufacturers / online sellers advertising their masks as N95, when they are clearly not. 

"What we've seen is there certainly is a market for these. All of us in the U.S. are really anxious for high-quality masks and test kits and medications," said CBP executive assistant commissioner Brenda Smith.

"The N95 is a really desirable mask right now and really likely to be counterfeited."

Almost 15 million masks have been seized. In September of 2020 alone, the US Customs & Border Protection captured 500,000 counterfeit N95 masks as they were shipped into Chicago in a single batch from Shenzhen, China.

US Customs are more likely to seize and inspect large batches of masks. Smaller orders of 10-20 masks are less likely to be weeded out by US Customs and many may have already made it to the end customer in the US. 

When looking for a certified N95 mask, the most important thing is NIOSH approval. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is a part of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

N95 masks and respirators must be certified by NIOSH. For an N95 mask to get a NIOSH stamp of approval, it needs to filter at least 95% of airborne particles.

How to Check if Your Mask is Real

NIOSH-approved masks have an approval label on or within the mask packaging -- either on the box or in the users' instructions. The mask should also have an abbreviated approval marking.

Certified N95 Mask
How to check for a legitimate N95 Mask

The NIOSH logo on the mask, box and instructions are vital to certify if your mask is real. The NIOSH logo is shown below. 

National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health
Look for this logo on the mask from the National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health

Additionally, the approval number on your mask should begin with "TC."

Counterfeit N95 masks Do Not Pass Filtration tests

Although 'any' mask has been shown to be more effective than 'no mask' in the prevention of COVID-19, this particular scam involves the sale of fake N95 masks. These masks have been sold to US consumers from overseas sellers and don't do what an N95 mask should do. 

For good measure, 30 masks taken from the Chicago seizure of Chinese fakes were actually sent to a testing location.

Once tested, it was discovered that only 10% of the counterfeit masks actually filtered out the promised 95% of airborne particles.  An N95 mask must filter out at least 95% of airborne particles.

These masks were not deemed suitable for use in front-line environments and recipients of these fake masks would have been at an increased risk 

Only 10% of these fake masks actually passed the test to filter out more than 95% of airborne particles. 

Confusion Between N95 and KN95 (Chinese Approved)

The Chinese approved equivalent mask, the KN95 has not been approved to meet the standards in the US. Masks that are KN95 approved are being sold online as N95 masks to consumers. 

KN95 masks only meet standards in China yet are not certified in the US. 

How to Avoid Buying Fake N95 Masks

If you are shopping on the internet, this scam is hard to detect as the pictures shown in the product listing can easily be faked or stolen from a legitimate seller.

Therefore we recommend two options to avoid this scam.

1) Shop with a reputable US retailer - if you are shopping in a physical store, it is easy to check and inspect and verify the masks. And, with large retailers you can rely on their supply chain to ensure that the correct masks are in their stores. 

2) Don't use sites that allow 3rd party sellers - many sites (like Amazon, Ebay, Etsy and other)  allow 3rd party sellers on their platform. Counterfeit masks are sold by 3rd parties and we recommend avoiding these sites for N95 masks or filtering out 3rd party sellers that you don't recognize as US retailers. 

We recommend using sites that hold their own stock of the masks in the US, and trusting the US retailers supply chain in this instance. 

If you are shopping online, you can use these tips to try to avoid counterfeit masks:

  • Location - Check the location of the seller and don't trust offshore sellers in this instance as N95 masks are being shipped to the US en-masse. 
  • Flaws - Look for flaws in the descriptions or on the website, like unfinished or blank pages, repeated text, broken links and misspelled domains. Look for typos or bad grammar and avoid these sites.
  • Reviews - Does the seller have reviews of other N95 masks that they have sold to customers. Are the reviews mis-spelled or do the reviews contain errors, or do the reviews reference that the masks are 'genuine' or 'real' (this is suspicious consumers won't typically buy a product and then write in the review that it was genuine or real as that is their natural expectation- these reviews might be fake). 
  • Price - Is this price much cheaper than the US retailers?
  • Ear loops - The  official N95 mask is sold with a headband and ear loops are not on the N95 masks. The N95 mask uses the headband for a tighter fit which helps in filtering out 95% of particles. 
  • Approved for Children - If the seller has mentioned that their N95 mask is 'approved for children', this is another red flag. The NIOSH does not list specific approvals for children.
  • Contact Information - Does the seller look easy to contact for complaints?


Security Tip - Trust Major US Retailers Over Foreign Sellers for N95 Masks

US retailers will have established supply chains for these products. to avoid counterfeit products online, the only thing that can be used is the supplier and the supply chain to trust that the. The CDC has a list of approved manufacturers and US retailers should use this to purchase from, ensuring you get the correct mask. 

Criminal organizations are also trying to sell counterfeit pharmaceuticals, other PPE and medical devices to "unsuspecting American consumers," CBP Executive Director for Trade Policies and Programs, John Leonard, told CNN in an interview earlier this year. 

Don't risk your safety in the pandemic from a criminal profiting off counterfeit products. If you have been a victim of this scam, report it. National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, or by telephone at 1-866-IPR-2060.

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