Company tells COS of its battle against thousands of criminals looking to profit from the pandemic – at the expense of essential workers
To date, more than 3 million people have died worldwide due to COVID.
The pandemic and its devastating effects are still very much a reality for hundreds of countries around the world, including Canada and the US.
Nevertheless, despite the seriousness of this global crisis, some people are trying to profit off the pandemic.
“I think that the insatiable demand for disposable respiratory protection overall has created challenges across the world,” says Michael Spylo, Regional Division Leader, Personal Safety Division, 3M Canada.
“When COVID started, the need for respiratory protection was far greater than any manufacturing output or supply chain could produce,” he says.
“The reality is, when we couldn’t produce anywhere near the quantities that were required, that is when we started to see counterfeit product showing up,” says Spylo. “We started to become very aware, in the early stages, that there was unscrupulous behaviour occurring that we needed to address.”
3M was a huge target for fraudsters from the outset of the pandemic.
“3M is a very trusted brand. People trust it because it has been protecting their relatives, their parents, their children, for years and years,” says Spylo.
3M has been one of the biggest respirator manufacturers in the world during the pandemic. By the end of 2020, 3M had produced 2 billion respirators globally, and their output continues to build off of that number in 2021, he says.
“Over the last year and half, we’ve created a dedicated team to investigate fraud globally. We’re fighting fraud, misrepresentation, price gouging,” says Spylo. “To ensure that we’re not only protecting the public against those who are trying to exploit demand for this, but also we want to make sure that we do our part in removing misrepresentation on social media sides.”
So far, he says, 3M has brought over 33 lawsuits in courts across the United States and Canada and has been granted almost 30 temporary restraining orders or preliminary injunctions against various parties and organizations.
Over 38 million counterfeit respirators have been seized and destroyed.
3M has investigated reports globally of up to 13,800 instances of suspected fraud, counterfeiting and price gouging activities.
Indeed, 3M has spent the last year producing an impressive quantity of respirators – which go through rigorous quality checks and testing to ensure filtration efficiency – and has expended a lot of time and resources on combatting fraud.
And even now that the global production of respirators has ramped up, fraud is sadly still an issue.
3M has a section on its website: www.go.3M.com/covidfraud dedicated to how to catch respirator fraud, as well as various hotlines for tips.
“We have the benefit of many feet on the street and so there's a lot of interaction with our customers. So when there's a question, our 3M safety specialists are reachable,” says Spylo.
“Counterfeit products are made by criminals trying to deceive customers. There's a misrepresentation here that while it may look like a 3M respirator, it's not tested on an ongoing basis that we're aware of,” says Spylo.
Indeed, one of the biggest dangers of counterfeit products is that the consumer doesn’t know what kind of quality standards are being put into place, and most likely there aren’t any.
“Ultimately,” says Spylo, “[Counterfeiters] are here to profit from the opportunity to sell you something, whether it works or not.”
This is at odds with 3M’s mission: “Our number one priority, and the highest priority, is the safety of the public health, first responders and healthcare workers that are looking after patients or interacting with people.”
“Unfortunately the fraudsters and the counterfeiters are pretty creative,” says Spylo.
3M doesn’t share all of its approaches (so as not to tip off the fraudsters) but, for example, the company tracks the lot numbers of product batches to see if they match suspected counterfeit respirators.
Ultimately, counterfeiters are criminals; they are putting fake credentials on products which puts users at risk.
“They don’t care about frontline workers; they don’t care about anybody’s protection. It’s a disgrace and it’s why we will defend [3M] and pursue [fraud] vigorously,” says Spylo.
No slowing down
Though global product has since ramped up to meet demand, fraud and counterfeit products are still rampant and will continue to be a problem.
“Whenever there's high demand, you are going to encounter people who want to take advantage of the system,” says Spylo, “I certainly believe we will probably have more continued counterfeit concerns.”
Spylo says that the number one thing that a consumer can do to ensure that they are buying legitimate respirators is to purchase at approved 3M distributors:
“Our message to the market is that you know who you've purchased your respiratory products from in the past. These distributor partners of ours have been around for many years and they get authentic 3M product.
And if you're buying from somebody for the first time, we would ask that you go through the efforts of confirming that it is authentic 3M product.”