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Investigators seize 1.8 million counterfeit PPE masks, Queens DA says

Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz displays a box

Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz displays a box of counterfeit 3M N95 respirator masks seized from a Long Island City warehouse. Credit: Queens County District Attorney

Investigators in Queens seized nearly 1.8 million counterfeit PPE masks in a Long Island City warehouse, a seizure that is believed to be the largest ever involving fake masks during the pandemic, officials said Thursday.

The bust took place Tuesday and led to the arrest of a warehouse manager on one count of trademark counterfeiting involving the improper use of the 3M company masks, Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz said during a virtual news conference.

The masks, labeled as ostensibly being of the widely used N-95 variety, were uncovered during an undercover operation based on a tip which led to the warehouse on 51st Avenue. The items were believed to have been sold to a number of hospitals and health care facilities, Katz said.

Officials for 3M told investigators that the masks, although packaged in boxes bearing the company logo and containing printed instructions, were not authentic and were being sold at two to three times the suggested retail price, Katz said.

"We believe this to be one of the largest seizures of counterfeit masks since the pandemic began last year," the district attorney said. "Each of these masks, each of these boxes, each of the way they were packing were meant to look like 3M, they were meant to look like the real McCoy."

Asked if by a reporter what kind of protection the masks provided, Katz replied "We don’t know."

Katz wouldn’t disclose the identity of the hospitals that received masks shipped earlier from the warehouse, except to say one was in the southern United States and had paid $700,000. Katz stopped short of saying the masks were dangerous to anyone using them but indicated that the items seized were being examined. One officials noted that the masks were not approved by any federal safety agency,

The sale of the masks constituted a health care fraud, investigators alleged. Katz read a statement from 3M in which the company stated it was aggressively fighting counterfeiting of PPE. Katz added that another tip that the masks were counterfeit was that the bar codes on the boxes were fake, adding that 3M has a list of legitimate bar codes on the company website.

Also found in the two-story warehouse were other supplies of PPE, including hand sanitizers, disinfecting wipes, children’s masks, construction masks and gowns, all of which were being examined to determine their authenticity, said investigators.

Arrested so far was Zhi Zeng, 33, of Dyker Heights, Brooklyn. Zeng was arraigned Thursday in Queens Criminal Court and released, said officials. He was due back in court on April 27 and faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted, said Katz.

Defense attorney Eric Renfroe didn’t immediately return a telephone call for comment.

Katz stressed that the investigation was still in its early stages and indicated more persons could be charged. As more information is learned about the origin of the masks and the authenticity of all the PPE seized it would be disclosed to the public, she said.

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