How to Buy a Real N95 Mask Online


A year into the coronavirus pandemic, buying a heavy-duty medical mask online remains downright maddening.

The most coveted mask to keep safe against Covid-19 has been the N95, the gold standard for pandemic protection because of its tight fit and 95 percent efficiency in filtering airborne particles. Then there’s the KN95 from China, a mask for medical workers, which also offers high filtration and is somewhat looser fitting.

But these masks have been far from easy to buy on the internet. When the pandemic hit last year, they immediately became scarce as health care workers and governments rushed to obtain them. The demand was so intense that a gray market sprang up for them.

Yet even after supplies have improved, it is often not easy to find authentic N95s and KN95s online. That’s because there are few brand-name makers, so it can be hard to know which of the dozens of manufacturers are reliable. And counterfeiters continue to flood the market, even on trusted sites like Amazon.

How had I almost bought a counterfeit? Saoud Khalifah, the founder of Fakespot, a company that offers tools to detect fake listings and reviews online, said a third-party seller had probably taken control of the product listing and sold fakes to make a quick buck.

“It’s a bit of a Wild West,” he said. “The normal consumers that shop on Amazon do not know that they just bought a fake mask. This is the biggest critical problem: You think it’s real, and suddenly you get sick.”

Mr. Khalifah presented other examples of questionable masks that were being sold on Amazon:

  • A pack of 50 masks was highlighted on Amazon this week as the No. 1 new release in women’s fashion scarves. Obviously, masks are not scarves, which was a giveaway that something was off. The listing description also replaced all of the letter A’s with accented characters. This was a technique used to bypass Amazon’s fraud detection systems, Mr. Khalifah said. Amazon removed the listing after I called about it.

Amazon said in a statement that it prohibits the sale of counterfeit products and invests to ensure its policy is followed. It said it had specific policies for N95 and KN95 masks, including a process for vetting inventory and taking action on those who sold fakes.

Amazon also said it had addressed the questionable Powecom mask that I nearly purchased, as well as the mask advertised as a scarf. It added that there was no evidence that the pack of 20 masks was counterfeited and did not comment on the pack of 100 masks.

Mr. Khalifah cautioned that the fakes he spotted on Amazon could just as easily be on websites for other big retailers, such as Walmart and eBay, that allow third-party sellers to ship products. To buy authentic masks, he said, I should take a less traditional approach to shopping online.

Armed with this advice, I continued my search for the Powecom mask.

I visited the manufacturer’s website, which listed steps for verifying that a mask is real. That involved scanning a bar code on the package with a phone camera. Then I did a web search for the mask, which brought me to bonafidemasks.com, an online retailer that shows documentation stating that it is an authorized distributor of Powecom masks in the United States.

That was more reassuring. So I ordered a pack of 100 for $99. When the package arrived in the mail, I scanned the bar codes to confirm their authenticity. They were the real deal.



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