COMPANIES profiteering from the coronavirus pandemic are finding new ways to market their goods on Facebook, despite the social media site cracking down on exploitation.
Face masks are being mislabeled to lead consumers to believe they are purchasing items that will protect them from the virus.
Facebook has cracked down on sellers of personal protective equipment (PPE) in recent weeks, completely barring ads for such products from its platform on March 6.
But despite the company's attempt to prohibit price-gouging on coronavirus gear, the ads are still popping up across Facebook.
Not only are the ads selling face masks for a profit, but they are mislabeling regular masks as N95 masks, the grade used by medical workers, which filters 95 per cent of particles.
For the mask to be N95 certified, there has to be very specific information on the mask itself including lot number, approval number, model number, registered manufacturer name, and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) logo.
When contacted for comment regarding the misleading ads, a Facebook spokesperson told The Sun the company is partnering with health authorities such as the World Health Organization to connect people to the latest official guidance.
"We are focused on preventing exploitation of this crisis for financial gain and we have removed the violating ads brought to our attention. Since coronavirus was declared a public health emergency, Facebook has removed millions of ads and commerce listings."
The spokesperson added while enforcement wasn't "perfect", several automated detection mechanisms had been put in place to block or remove this material from the platform.
"We also urge people to use our reporting tools on the platform to notify us of any ads that they believe could be exploiting this crisis," they added.
Since The Sun reached out for comment, Facebook has removed the ads and pages in question.
Facebook has been blocking pages since January that are running ads that claim their product can cure the disease.
However, companies are not only still running ads, but also suggesting that PM2.5 mask filters can keep out COVID-19 germs.
The PM2.5 is not an indicator of what percentage of germs it filters out, unlike the certified N95 label, which are guaranteed to filter out 95% of particles that are smaller than 0.3 micrometers in size.
For both mask grades, the masks only guarantee protection if they have been tested and certified, and they are usually sold by reputable brands such as 3M.
One company, Inspire Masks, has been running four ads on Facebook since April 3, with the first ad going live on April 2.
The company's page was created on April 1 and posted just one day later saying: "We’re doing everything we can to keep our heroes safe!
"We’re introducing these reusable face masks that contain a PM 2.5 activated filter. The filters can isolate 95% of airborne particles, germs, dust, chemicals, gas pollen and more."
The post added: "We are donating 20% of profits to those fighting COVID-19 on the frontline!"
The Inspire Masks site states: "This mask is not intended to act as a medical device or other medical product, and Inspire Masks LLC makes no warranties, either express or implied, that the mask prevents infection or the transmission of viruses or diseases."
The PM2.5 masks it sells do not appear to have been certified.
Daniel Stevens, executive director at Campaign for Accountability, a non-profit watchdog organization fighting corruption, said tech companies had failed to police their platforms during the epidemic.
“It is unacceptable that tech companies are allowing individuals to buy and sell face masks while doctors and nurses don’t have enough masks to safely treat their patients," Stevens told The Sun.
"Even worse, the tech companies are profiting from these purchases through ad sales and store commissions.
"Amid all the attention on the sale of face masks, users are trying to dupe customers into buying masks that do not provide adequate protection.
Previous efforts by Facebook to clamp down on the ads were found to impact volunteers who were using Facebook to get masks, reported the NY Times.
As a result the company promised to update its system to avoid "inadvertently" blocking efforts to donate supplies.
"The automated systems we set up to prevent the sale of medical masks needed by health workers have inadvertently blocked some efforts to donate supplies," the statement read.
"We apologize for this error and are working to update our systems to avoid mistakes like this going forward."
However, an investigation by the Tech Transparency Project, published on March 23, revealed ads were still running on the platform.
One website, Kit-Survie.org, was created by survival equipment experts in an attempt to fight disinformation online.
The authors dedicate a section to PM2.5 masks, writing: "Be very careful with reusable cloth masks that use activated carbon filters with “PM2.5” written on them. They are very tempting because of their cost-effectiveness, and although these masks are very effective against dust, they are by no means effective against viruses.
"Unfortunately, many product pages try to make these articles look like anti-virus products, sometimes even writing “N95”, “FFP2” or “KN95” in the title or description of the ad.
"These products pose an obvious safety problem."
Due to the severe shortage of N95 masks, the FDA issued an emergency authorization for KN95 masks, the NY Times reported on April 3.
The KN95s are almost identical to the N95 design, and the CDC lists them as a suitable alternative when N95s are unavailable.
Companies are freely advertising KN95s for sale, as well as mis-labeling the KN95s as N95s.
A post on a Facebook page belonging to "Best Store Today", lists N95 masks for sale, yet the link leads to a mask that is neither an N95 nor a KN95, but in fact contains just a PM2.5 filter, which does not filter out the small size of particles that the other two masks catch.
The page's administrator has previously encouraged concerned prospective buyers to purchase the PM2.5 version, saying it is "better to have something than nothing".
Members of the public have also been strongly discouraged from purchasing N95 masks for themselves, as there is such a shortage for medical workers in hospitals.
The Sun has reached out to Inspire Masks and Best Store Today for comment.
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