US seizes lanyards and other bogus products marketed as COVID-19 protection


Federal authorities are attempting to stop a wave of bogus and potentially dangerous products marketed to Americans to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

In recent months, US customs officials have seized thousands of unapproved lanyards, tablets and herbal medicines — all part of a rush of supplies entering the US market during the pandemic.

Fraudulent and unapproved products have become a dangerous side effect of the effort to supply US consumers with personal protective equipment and medical supplies. Scammers were quick to take advantage of a new market and scared consumers anxious for a cure, several federal officials tell CNN.

“When you combine a stressed supply chain with a stimulus package, and weave in there the anxiety and the emotions of a public that is certainly scared and nervous about everything going on, it makes for a perfect storm for criminal organizations to take advantage and defraud people,” said a Customs and Border Protection official at John F. Kennedy International Airport, speaking about recent seizures of unapproved products in the New York region.

Amid imports of counterfeit face masks and prohibited Covid-19 test kits, other unsafe items lacking the required Environmental Protection Agency or Food and Drug Administration approvals have also headed toward buyers.

Seizing unsafe items

Nationwide, the customs agency has made 63 seizures of the EPA-prohibited anti-virus lanyards and 51 seizures of FDA-prohibited chloroquine tablets, resulting in over 8,700 tablets and 2,261 lanyards seized as of May 1, according to a CBP spokesperson.

In recent months, the CBP’s New York Field has office made 63 seizures of unapproved test kits and anti-body kits, for a total of more than 5,000 test kits, as well as 18 seizures of lanyards, amounting to over 400 products.

“Shut out” lanyards began to appear as early as February. Designed to be worn around the neck, they are coated with the chemical chlorine dioxide, according to a CBP official in Cincinnati. Officials were confused about the products at first, realizing later that “they were essentially just coated with pesticides,” the official said.

They’re being marketed as a solution to the virus, while taking advantage of the public’s worries about the ongoing outbreak, according to several Department of Homeland Security officials. In recent days, CNN found similar products listed on Amazon and eBay.

The potential health hazards of these products have raised particular concern for officials working to speed the delivery of much-needed products while preventing fake, unauthorized and counterfeit goods from making their way to the public.

In March, the EPA warned against “Virus Shut Out” products, saying they had prevented several shipments of an illegal health product from entering US Pacific ports under federal pesticide laws. Products that claim to kill or repel bacteria or germs are considered pesticides and must be registered with the EPA.

To date, over 10,000 units of the “Virus Shut Out” product have been intercepted, according to the EPA. “The agency is concerned that consumers will rely on false claims that a product will protect against coronavirus, and that will increase the spread of Covid-19,” an EPA spokesperson told CNN.

The premise is that you wear it around your neck and it keeps you from getting the virus, which is “completely, completely inaccurate and dangerous,” said the Customs official in Cincinnati.

This particular chemical can be absorbed through the skin, can cause respiratory distress, as well as liver and kidney issues, said the official, adding “it’s highly toxic.”

Both eBay and Amazon tell CNN the companies are monitoring their sales platforms to find and remove products that make inaccurate claims about Covid-19. Amazon has blocked or removed more than 6.5 million products, according to a company spokesperson.

EBay is supporting the EPA’s efforts to prohibit the sale of items making fraudulent health claims, spokeswoman Ashley Settle told CNN.

“The person purchasing this online has no idea what they’re actually getting. And they’re going off the promise that this is going to cure or prevent them from getting sick,” said the Customs official. “These items serve no actual purpose.”

Who’s selling them?

In April, a Georgia resident was charged with illegally importing and selling an unregistered pesticide through eBay, claiming that it would help protect people from viruses, according to the Department of Justice. According to the criminal complaint, products marked as “Virus Shut Out” and “Stop The Virus” claimed to control viruses and bacteria.

Attorney for the defendant, Paul Kish, told CNN in part, “We support the role of government agencies in protecting consumers, and also support government investigations related to the pandemic,” adding, “It appears that this is a situation where frightened people were simply trying to help themselves, their families and other like-minded individuals stay safe in these scary times.”

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which investigates seizures made by CBP, the majority of the products appear to be made in Japan, however, shipments from China, Germany, Hong Kong, Qatar and Taiwan have also been seized. ICE has also encountered clip-on magnets and cards that are marketed as antiviral products, according to agency spokeswoman Britney Walker.

In April, the FDA issued a warning letter to a seller marketing chlorine dioxide products known as “Miracle Mineral Solution” for prevention and treatment of Covid-19. The agency first warned about these products in 2010, but they are still being sold with misleading claims that they are safe and effective for the treatment of diseases, including for Covid-19, according to the FDA.

A week later, a federal court issued a temporary injunction requiring the sellers to “immediately stop distributing” the solution, which the FDA said was an “unproven and potentially harmful” treatment being offered to treat coronavirus.

CBP officials have also seized chlorine dioxide tablets designed to be dissolved in water. These tablets and chemicals have legitimate uses but can cause respiratory and other issues if used improperly, said the Customs official in Cincinnati.

“Our concern is with keeping it out of the hands of Joe Citizen, who doesn’t know how to utilize it, doesn’t know that it’s toxic and dangerous,” said the Customs official.

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