Beware of Fake N95 Masks Being Sold Amidst the Pandemic

Scammers have been taking advantage of a global pandemic to make quick money, selling fake N95 masks and putting the public at risk.


Jessica Braun Gervais
Updated 12 May 2021
Beware of Fake N95 Masks Being Sold Amidst the Pandemic
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United States Scam & Fraud Statistics 2020


$3.3 billion total fraud losses
4.7 million fraud reports

1.4 million reports of identity theft

Source: 2019-20 Consumer Sentinel Report

Sections on this page
  1. Identifying Fake N95 Masks
  2. The Dangers Of Using Fake N95 Masks
  3. How To Avoid Purchasing Fake N95 Masks
  4. What to Do If You Buy Fake N95 Masks
  5. Frequently Asked Questions

Doctors and healthcare staff across the country use N95 masks to keep from contracting airborne diseases. During the start of the global pandemic in early 2020, hospitals saw a shortage of N95 masks. As a result, the general public began purchasing the masks out of fear of contracting COVID-19. This shortage led to increased demand, giving scammers the perfect opportunity to produce and sell fake N95 masks.

Identifying Fake N95 Masks

There are quite a few different types of fake N95 masks on the market. Here are some red flags to look out for before making a purchase, including:

  • NIOSH markings
  • Decorative fabrics and add-ons
  • Child sizes
  • Earloops
  • Fit
  • Price

NIOSH Markings

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has approved authentic N95 masks. All NIOSH-approved masks have six exterior markings.

Looking at the mask straight on, you should see the brand name of the mask or a registered trademark to the left. Google the brand to see if the brand is an official NIOSH-approved brand such as 3M.

Below the brand name should be the NIOSH name in block letters or the NIOSH logo.

In the bottom center of the mask should be the approval number. This code will read as two numbers and a letter for the approval code followed by a dash and the three or four digits. You can enter the approval number on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website to see if the number is registered.

Under the approval number is the filter class. Filter class starts with either "N," "P," or "R." Following the filter class is the filter efficiency level which is either 95, 99, or 100. A real N95 mask should read N95 here. If N95 is anywhere else on the mask and not in this spot, it's not authentic.

On the bottom right of the mask, you will find the model number. This code will read as "Model #" followed by a four-digit sequence.

Below the model number is the Lot number. The NIOSH recommends putting the lot number on masks, but it's not required. If your mask has everything but the lot number, there's a good chance it could be authentic.

N95 mask markings
Look for the correct markings on NIOSH-approved masks. (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Decorative Fabrics or Add-Ons

NIOSH-approved N95 masks don't have decorative fabrics on the outside and don't have add-ons such as glitter. They also don't come in vibrant colors or different designs. If you see a fashionable N95 mask, it's a fake.

Child Sizes

If a mask claims to be an official N95 mask and claims to be a suitable fit for children, it's not a real N95 mask. NIOSH-approved N95 masks don't fit children and do not come in child sizes.

Earloops

If your mask goes on with ear loops, it's a fake N95 mask. Authentic N95 masks have elastic headbands to keep the masks securely on your face and don't have ear loops.

Fit

Authentic N95 masks should fit snuggly to the face with no gaping or space around the sizes. You should be able to gently shake your head and move around without the mask moving. Masks that don't fit properly are fakes.

Price

There have been news stories of real and fake N95 masks selling for $80 to $100 for a single mask. A single N95 mask should not cost you more than $10. Unfortunately, scammers have been taking advantage of masks' demand and selling fake ones at obscene prices.

The Dangers Of Using Fake N95 Masks

Authentic N95 masks can filter out 95% or more airborne particles that cause disease, such as COVID-19. Genuine N95 masks are approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), meaning they're proven to keep people safe successfully.

Scammers have shipped fake N95 masks to hospitals, putting nurses, doctors, and hospital staff at significant risk for contracting infectious and potentially life-threatening diseases. Counterfeit masks aren't proven to filter at the same rate, and their poor fit makes them easy to lift and move, causing the person wearing the mask to breathe in unfiltered air. The fake N95 masks also have breathing resistance, meaning it's harder for people to breathe, which could cause fatigue and dizziness.

Beyond the risks posed at hospitals, using Fake N95 masks during the pandemic can also put the general public at risk. People wearing ill-fitted masks may believe they're keeping themselves safe when in public, but they could be just as much of a risk wearing a fake N95 mask as if they didn't have a mask at all. It's also dangerous for people who exercise with their masks. Since some counterfeits make it harder to breathe, exercising with a fake N95 mask could cause extreme fatigue or even make a person pass out.

How To Avoid Purchasing Fake N95 Masks

Fake N95 can be hard to spot, and hospitals in at least five states purchased thousands believing they were NIOSH approved. To avoid falling victim to a fake N95 mask, only buy masks from brands that the NIOSH have authorized, such as 3M.

The best way to ensure you have a genuine N95 mask is to purchase it directly from the manufacturer and avoid making purchases from places such as eBay and Amazon. You can find a complete list of NIOSH-approved manufacturers on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.

Take a Closer Look at the Mask

If you're shopping in a physical store and you can look at the mask in person before purchasing it, use the guidelines above to help identify if the mask is fake. If you're shopping online, ask the seller to send you a picture of the mask's front to see if it's displaying the proper markings. If the seller seems reluctant to send you photos of the masks or answer any questions, that may be a sign that the masks are fake.

Compare the Price

Also, be aware of masks priced at unusually high price points. Many scammers are feeding on the public's fear during the pandemic and selling fake N95 masks for hundreds of dollars. If you're purchasing a single mask, you likely won't be paying more than $10. If someone is trying to sell you an expensive mask, they're selling a fake, or they're trying to scam you out of your money.

What to Do If You Buy Fake N95 Masks

Unfortunately, if you purchase a fake N95 mask, there's not much you can do to get your money back. If you bought it from an online store such as Amazon or eBay, you can contact them and report the scam if the seller advertised it as NIOSH approved. You likely won't get a refund from Amazon or eBay, but they can look into the seller and remove the seller from their site if they find the person scamming.

For a list of fake N95 masks, you can visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where can I buy a genuine N95 mask?

Real N95 masks can be bought from several approved manufacturers and retailers, including 3M and CVS. For a full list of approved manufacturers visit the CDC website.

Are KN95 masks the same as N95 masks?

There are some KN95 masks that are like N95 masks and meet similar requirements required for NIOSH approval. However, about 60% of KN95 masks in the U.S. are counterfeit/fake, so it's still best to buy N95 masks from approved manufacturers.

What is an N95 mask?

An N95 mask is used to protect you from airborne particles, such as the COVID-19 virus. Genuine N95 masks are approved and regulated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). 

Are N95 masks washable?

The CDC and NIOSH do not recommend reusing N95 masks, as they are designed for single use only. If you do need to re-use your N95 mask, it should not be washed with soap and water. De-contamination requires heating, UV treatment, or steam cleaning.

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