More virus, more fraud
Delta COVID-19 surge may drive increase in PPE scams
By Megan Headley
With the spread of the delta variant of COVID-19, mask and vaccine mandates are coming back, and hospitals are reaching or exceeding capacity in some regions. That may mean higher demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) and a new rise of fraudulent or black market N95 masks and other protective supplies.
In early 2020, the FBI issued a warning to individuals and entities, including health systems, to be on the lookout for robocalls making fraudulent offers to sell large amounts of PPE such as respiratory masks or other medical devices. These scams would often demand advance payments with no intent of delivery.
“As the COVID pandemic was slowing down and PPE sales related to the pandemic were slowing down, the [scammers] would move on to the next thing,” says Michael Sinensky, CEO of PPE provider WeShield. “Unfortunately, with every surge they come back or new people come and it’s a new product that they’re scamming. First it was masks, then it was gloves, and now it’s civilian three-ply masks, those blue surgical masks.”
Sinensky says that at this point, health systems should have trustworthy suppliers in place, which gives them a leg up on scammers. “At the beginning of the pandemic, everyone became a supplier. … Now it’s tapered off where suppliers are the same, but the problem is the manufacturers and people representing manufacturers. All the fraud that’s happened now is in counterfeit goods or ‘recycled’ goods that didn’t sell because they were proven defective.”
This may put more onus of proof of product fitness on the supplier, but health systems need to ensure they’re asking questions of suppliers and demanding evidence of quality control processes.
“Work with reputable people that you can do due diligence on and find some information on them before buying a lifesaving product,” Sinensky advises. He adds, “Now that it’s gone over a year and a half with the pandemic, the suppliers that are there selling to hospitals are reputable. If something is wrong, a reputable supplier will fix the mistakes. It’s key that you buy from reputable sellers.”
The FBI offers several red flags that it says can help guide procurement officers and other consumers in determining PPE-related fraud. Among others, these warning signs include:
- The seller makes last-minute changes in price
- The seller demands unusual terms such as full payment up front
- The seller requests that the buyer wire funds before shipment and send the seller proof of payment
- The buyer is unable to verify the seller’s legitimacy with the manufacturer, on the internet, through the supply chain, or by other means
- The seller does not return the buyer’s telephone calls or emails
- The buyer is unable to verify the legitimacy of the seller’s contact information or basic business details, such as telephone number or email address
- The seller is unable to answer simple questions such as how they have so much stock of medical devices, equipment, or goods that are generally in short supply
- The buyer receives multiple excuses for a delay in shipping; for example, the seller may say the equipment is stuck in customs or has been seized
In August 2021, a new fraud alert was issued, this time from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, warning of an uptick in fraudulent activity largely around vaccination scams. It’s an indication that criminals are already eyeing the surge as an opportunity. Health systems must work only with trusted vendors, and staff need to keep an eye out for anything suspicious when it comes to new protective gear.
For example, Sinensky notes that the FDA has removed CAN95 masks from its list of approved gear. “They had emergency use authorization (EUA) for a year,” he notes, but the EUA was revoked in July 2021. Yet, he adds, “CAN95s are everywhere.”
Today, healthcare professionals are advised to use only FDA-cleared or NIOSH-approved respirators, including N95 masks. Sinensky cautions, “One great way to spot a fake N95 is that there are no NIOSH-approved N95 masks with ear loops. They’re only behind the head like a catcher’s mask. So, if someone is selling an N95 with ear loops, it is not an N95.”
With careful planning, health systems shouldn’t face the procurement challenges of last year. However, it’s important to begin planning for a potential fall surge.
“We’re suggesting that you stock up now,” Sinensky adds. “Aside from fraud, over the next three months, we are seeing there’s going to be another shortage and prices are going to be skyrocketing. They’re already beginning to skyrocket up around 500% for regular masks.”
Sinensky advises talking with your trusted vendors today about increasing inventory of certain critical products now before they’re most needed. “Things will probably get bumpy again come this winter,” he adds.