Face masks are not the best protection against the virus — but that's not stopping the scammers

"It seems very predatory from my perspective,” said one company spokesperson whose product has been repackaged and resold under a different purpose.
Image: Medical Facemask
A man riding the subway wears a medical facemark out of concern over the Coronavirus in New York City on Feb. 2, 2020.Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images file

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By Leticia Miranda

Surging demand for face masks to protect against the spread of coronavirus has led to soaring prices and counterfeit products, forcing online retailers to tighten their policies and even kick some sellers off the platform.

A pack of five 3M face masks is currently selling for almost $200 on Walmart.com, approximately five times what the same pack cost just one month ago. Amazon shoppers who purchased a 20-pack of 3M masks listed at over $100 described the product as “fake,” warning people to “[stay] away” and noting that it was “Shameful that people are capitalizing on public health fears like this.”

Amazon and Walmart are marketplaces as well as retailers. As platforms, the two companies connect merchants with shoppers and take a commission on each sale. In the cases found by NBC, Amazon and Walmart are not the direct sellers but third-party companies using the site to hawk products. Amazon did not respond to NBC News request for comment on the price of face masks available on its site, but last week it did warn sellers that it will remove listings claiming to cure or treat coronavirus.

“It is against our marketplace policy to have items that have false or misleading claims, or to sell counterfeit or fraudulent goods,” Walmart told NBC News in an emailed statement. “If we are made aware of a product that violates one of our policies, it will be removed from our marketplace. Whether shopping online or in stores, we work hard to ensure our customers have a great shopping experience.

As companies crack down on misleading health claims, third-party sellers look for other ways to capitalize on consumer fears about contracting the virus, which has claimed nearly 2,800 lives and infected more than 80,000 people.

Frequent hand-washing, not wearing a face mask, is the most important step the public can take to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the World Health Organization said Thursday.

Michael Ryan, the executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, addressed the use of face masks during a media briefing. The WHO stance regarding surgical masks being worn by the general public is that only those who are already sick with a respiratory illness should wear them, he said.

But as fears peak, a circle of furtive sellers lurk online, waiting to make a quick buck. A third-party seller on Walmart.com sold a set of two “approved face safety breathing respiratory N-95” masks for $29.99 under the brand name Ridgerock Tools. But the company told NBC News that the seller, JABETC, is not an authorized seller of its products and does not sell on Walmart.com. The company stopped distributing these types of masks two years ago so the masks may be expired, said Mark Ching, a financial manager with Ridgerock Tools, a safety and home tools distribution company based in California.

“Whoever this person is must have gotten a hold of our product and unboxed them and sold them in packs of two,” he said. “Obviously it was something done in response to the crisis. It seems very predatory from my perspective.”

Walmart.com removed the Ridgerock Tools mask listing after it was contacted for comment by NBC News.

Several masks under the 3M brand, one of the largest manufacturers of medical equipment in the U.S., were sent to Amazon shoppers in broken boxes and one package of 20 masks sold from anywhere between $100 and $110 by third-party sellers. A pack of 3M N95 masks are selling for $129.99 on Walmart.com by Preferred Pharmacy Plus. A box of 20 of the same mask typically sell for around $20. 3M did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment.

A few sellers have also listed hand sanitizer at exorbitant prices. One 8.5 ounce bottle of hand sanitizer is listed on Amazon.com at $153.33, with only five currently left in stock. A 1.5 ounce of Kleenex brand foam hand sanitizer is listed on Amazon’s marketplace at $150.47.

Amazon did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment on surge pricing, but it told NBC News that it has blocked or removed more than 1 million products that made suspect or misleading claims about the coronavirus.

Amazon has come under fire in the past after third-party sellers on its marketplace hiked up prices for bottled water after Hurricane Irma in 2017. While the company is trying to stay ahead of nefarious sellers, ultimately it’s a long game of whack-a-mole.