DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — A major manufacturer of N95 masks is accusing a Delray Beach business of selling counterfeit N-95s, Contact 5 has learned.
According to a federal lawsuit filed in December in Minnesota, 3M alleges Nationwide Source of Delray Beach sold more than 10,000 counterfeit N95 masks to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.
N95 respirator masks are considered the gold standard for protection among front-line workers for helping prevent the spread of COVID-19.
"A nurse at HCMC noticed that one of the respirator provided by defendant did not fit as expected, and suspected that the respirator may have been a counterfeit product," the lawsuit said.
3M claims it confirmed the N95 was a counterfeit, and Nationwide Source is not an authorized dealer of the company's products. Court records show a judge granted 3M a preliminary injunction on Jan. 15.
According to federal court records, Nationwide Source has not filed a response to the litigation and does not have an attorney listed representing the company.
Mary Turner, the head of the Minnesota Nurses Association, credits that nurse for noticing the masks didn't fit as expected.
"If it wasn't for that nurse and her vigilance ... I can only imagine how many of the nurses would have gotten sick," Turner told Contact 5 in an interview.
The lawsuit filed by 3M accuses Nationwide Source of selling the masks at a markup of 625%.
The filing also includes screenshots of Nationwide Source's Twitter handle and claims the Delray Beach business "prominently advertises purported 3M N95 respirators for sale on its social media sites."
"Defendant is using the 3M masks in commerce to advertise, promote, offer for sale, and sell 3M-branded N95 respirators, including, for example, by advertising purported 3M branded respirators on defendant's Twitter feed," the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit notes that 3M typically handles reports of counterfeit goods with cease-and-desist letters instead of litigation.
"Here, 3M sent a cease-and-desist letter to defendant and received no response," attorneys representing 3M wrote in the lawsuit. "If defendant's counterfeit actions are not stopped, further fake respirators could be sold to unsuspecting purchasers who then wrongly rely on them for protection to prevent communication of a dangerous and potentially deadly virus."
Contact 5 made inquiries with several major hospital groups in Palm Beach County and on the Treasure Coast, all of which said they have not purchased N95 masks from Nationwide Source.
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Betsy Marville, a nurse from Boynton Beach, finds that encouraging.
"You're relying on this mask, that you're not breathing COVID in, and if it's counterfeit, it's not going to work for you," Marville said in an interview. "It's really a health crisis if you can't guarantee that what you're putting on your face is actually effective."
Contact 5 tried to reach Nationwide Source for this story. The Delray Beach office building listed as its address did not have Nationwide Source on its directory. Contact 5 learned from two other businesses inside the building that Nationwide Source moved out recently.
Contact 5 called the company's owner at the phone number listed on its website, but the owner hung up.
Turner said she wants federal authorities to investigate the Delray Beach business.
"To think that this company could just think nothing of selling inferior equipment that puts our health-care workers even more at risk is unconscionable," Turner told Contact 5.
3M's lawsuit against Nationwide Source notes the company actively works with law enforcement officials to investigate fraud involving its products.
"In light of substantial ongoing fraud involving 3M's PPE, 3M is working with law enforcement -- including the U.S. Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and federal and state attorneys general -- to help them investigate and prosecute offenders selling counterfeit goods and committing other misconduct," the lawsuit said.
Additionally, a spokesperson for the Hennepin County Medical Center told Contact 5 the hospital is working on getting its money back for the N95 masks purchased from Nationwide Source.
"At this time, we have not ruled out pursuing legal action against this company for selling a product that did not meet the standards it claimed," a spokesperson for Hennepin County Medical Center wrote in an email.
Court records show no upcoming hearings are scheduled for 3M's case against Nationwide Source.
3M issued the following statement in response to the story:
With the preliminary injunction against Nationwide, 3M is continuing its record of success in taking legal actions to protect healthcare workers from counterfeit respirators.
A U.S. District Court in Minnesota granted 3M’s motion for a preliminary injunction to stop Florida-based Nationwide from deceptively using 3M’s registered trademarks to advertise and sell counterfeit 3M-branded N95 masks.
Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC), incorrectly believing that Nationwide was an authentic distributor of 3M products, purchased more than 10,000 counterfeit masks made by Nationwide and paid 625 percent more than 3M’s list price for authentic N95 masks. Nationwide’s activities were unlawful and endangered the lives of essential medical workers.
3M worked to confirm for Hennepin County Medical Center that the respirators they purchased through a non-authorized distributor purporting to be 3M N95 respirators were counterfeit. Those respirators have been seized and removed from circulation.
READ THE LAWSUIT HERE: