A year into the coronavirus pandemic, buying a high-performance medical mask online remains downright insane.
The most sought-after mask to protect against Covid-19 was the N95, the gold standard for pandemic protection, as it sits tight and filters out 95 percent of the particles in the air. Then there is the KN95 from China, a mask for medical personnel that also offers high filtration and sits a little looser.
But these masks were anything but easy to buy on the Internet. When the pandemic hit last year, they ran into immediate scarcity as healthcare workers and governments rushed to obtain them. The demand was so great that a gray market emerged for them.
But even after the range has improved, it is often not easy to find authentic N95s and KN95s online. This is because there are only a few brand manufacturers. Hence, it can be difficult to know which of the dozen of manufacturers are reliable. And counterfeiters continue to flood the market, even on trusted websites like Amazon.
The result is often frustration when wearing a high performance mask is more important than ever. Last week, federal health officials stressed that we must all have tight-fitting masks because of the rapidly spreading variants of coronavirus.
"People don't know what is legitimate and they don't know which suppliers are legitimate," said Anne Miller, executive director of Project N95, a nonprofit that helps people buy coronavirus protection equipment. "We have had this problem since the pandemic started."
I recently spent hours comparing masks online and almost bought a pack of fakes on Amazon. Fortunately, I avoided falling into the trap and ended up finding legitimate, high quality masks from a trusted online retailer.
Along the way, I learned a lot about how to spot fraudulent mask lists and how to circumvent fake reviews. Here's how to use real medical masks that will protect you and your loved ones.
Choose a mask
My journey began on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. There I found diagrams of N95 and KN95 masks that the agency tested, including the make, model number, and filtration efficiency.
After some reading, I learned about the tradeoffs between the two types of masks. The N95's usually have straps that are strapped across the back of the head, which makes them snug-fitting. It can be uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time.
The KN95, approved by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use by healthcare workers, have ear loops for a tight fit that is slightly more comfortable than an N95. The disadvantage is that a little more air escapes from the KN95 than from the N95.
If you are frequently in high risk areas like hospitals, N95s may be more suitable. However, if you only need a protective mask for occasional use, e.g. B. An occasional visit to the grocery store, KN95 is likely sufficient.
After doing some research, I decided that a KN95 mask from Powecom, a Chinese brand, would be best for my purposes. The mask achieved a filtration efficiency of 99 percent in the C.D.C. tests.
From there, I went to Amazon, where I buy everything from dog food to batteries in the pandemic. Then things went wrong.
Beware of Amazon
When I typed "Powecom KN95" into Amazon's search box, the masks immediately showed up with a rating of 4.5 stars. I quickly clicked "Add to Cart".
But before checking out I scrolled down to read the reviews. There were roughly 130 – including a handful of one-star reviews from aggrieved buyers who said the masks were most likely counterfeit. I emptied my shopping cart.
How did I almost buy a fake? Saoud Khalifah, the founder of Fakespot, a company that offers tools to detect fake offers and reviews online, said a third party was likely to have taken control of product offerings and sold fakes to make quick money.
"It's a bit of a wild west," he said. “The normal consumers who shop at Amazon don't know that they just bought a counterfeit mask. This is the biggest critical problem: you think it's real and all of a sudden you get sick. "
Mr Khalifah presented other examples of questionable masks sold on Amazon:
A pack of 50 masks was highlighted on Amazon this week as the # 1 new release in women's fashion scarves. Obviously, masks aren't scarves, which was a giveaway for something wrong. The listing description also replaced all the letters A with accented characters. This was a technique that was used to bypass Amazon's fraud detection systems, Khalifah said. Amazon removed the list after calling about it.
Another pack of 20 masks looked attractive and was approved by the C.D.C. It even had positive reviews with an average of 4.4 stars. However, the reviews indicated that most of the customers received the masks for free, which was likely an incentive to leave positive feedback. A lukewarm review from someone who paid for the product found the masks to be "thin and very, very large."
Mr. Khalifah's software also found that another pack of 100 masks that had unanimous five-star ratings had reviewers in the past for other brands.
Amazon said in a statement that it bans the sale of counterfeit products and is investing to ensure its guidelines are followed. There were specific guidelines for N95 and KN95 masks, including a procedure for reviewing inventory and taking action for those who have sold counterfeits.
Amazon also said it looked at the questionable Powecom mask I almost bought, as well as the mask advertised as a scarf. There was no evidence that the pack of 20 masks was counterfeit and no comment on the pack of 100 masks.
Mr Khalifah warned that the fakes he spotted on Amazon could just as easily be found on websites of other major retailers like Walmart and eBay, where third-party sellers can ship products. In order to buy authentic masks, I should be less traditional when shopping online.
Order from an authorized source
Armed with this advice, I continued my search for the Powecom mask.
I visited the manufacturer's website for steps to verify the authenticity of a mask. To do this, a barcode on the packaging had to be scanned with a telephone camera. I then did a web search for the mask that took me to bonafidemasks.com, an online retailer that shows records that it is an authorized distributor of Powecom masks in the US.
That was more reassuring. So I ordered a pack of 100 for $ 99. When the package arrived in the mail, I scanned the barcodes to confirm their authenticity. You were the real deal.
Another way I could have gone was to order masks directly from the manufacturer. Verified mask manufacturers like DemeTech in Miami and Prestige Ameritech in Texas sell N95 through their websites.
However, ordering directly from a manufacturer is associated with other challenges. Often times, you have to buy a large amount to reduce costs.
What if you just want to buy a few to try on? Ms. Miller's nonprofit Project N95 buys bulk orders of masks and splits them up so people can buy smaller batches. "It's a very tedious process," she said.