California Firm and Owner Sentenced for COVID-19 Fraud Scheme – Department of Justice

A California man was sentenced Friday to eight months in custody for the importation, shipping and sale of illegally imported pesticides that were falsely advertised as products that could protect the user “from airborne infectious diseases.”

Samir Haj, 47, of San Diego, pleaded guilty in the Southern District of California on May 25, 2021, to charges relating to the unlawful importation, sale and mailing of an unregistered pesticide product from Japan marketed as a killer of airborne viruses such as COVID-19. Both he and his firm, Eco Shield LLC, were ordered to forfeit $427,689 in proceeds and pay restitution of $86,754. Eco Shield was ordered to pay an additional fine of $42,000.

According to court documents, the defendants sold the product EcoAirDoctor, a small gas-emitting badge that defendants claimed would kill viruses within a certain distance. Products making these types of public health claims are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which requires extensive testing to substantiate the claims of efficacy and safety prior to approving them for registration and sale in the United States. EcoAirDoctor was not registered with the EPA, and testing performed on behalf of the defendants revealed that the badge was not measurably effective “at killing off a useful number of microbes within the air.”

“This prosecution sends a strong message that circumventing federal environmental and public safety laws in order to profit from the public’s fears during a pandemic will not be tolerated,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “I thank our partners at the Environmental Protection Agency, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Postal Service for the investigation that led to the convictions and sentencings in this case.”

“This product not only didn’t work, but it was even potentially harmful,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman for the Southern District of California. “The defendant and his company will be held to account for cashing in on Covid-19 fears during a global pandemic.”

“The defendants knowingly persisted in their false assertions that their product provided protection against COVID-19,” said Special Agent in Charge Scot Adair of EPA’s Criminal Investigation Program in California. “EPA and its law enforcement partners are committed to holding responsible parties accountable for putting people’s health at risk.” 

“Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), along with our government partners, are committed to protecting the American public against criminal networks attempting to illegally import and sell products that could endanger lives of U.S. consumers for financial gain,” said Special Agent in Charge Chad Plantz of HSI San Diego. “We remain vigilant and will use our broad legal authorities to disrupt and dismantle criminal networks seeking to exploit and benefit from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Postal Inspectors remain vigilant in protecting the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) and the communities we serve,” said Inspector in Charge Carroll N. Harris of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS). “Preventing the dangerous misuse of the nation’s mail system remains one of our top priorities.”

The EcoAirDoctor badge consisted of sodium chlorite and natural zeolite. When the product is opened, the zeolite contacts the sodium chlorite, releasing chlorine dioxide gas. The EPA has established a reference concentration for long-term continuous exposure to chlorine dioxide of 0.00007 parts per million (ppm). Risks from the inhalation of chlorine dioxide are a concern if the air concentrations exceed the reference concentration. The documentation provided by Eco Shield LLC states that chlorine dioxide levels below 0.0001 do not kill viruses and claims that the concentration for viral inactivation should be between 0.0001 and 0.1 ppm, in excess of the levels deemed safe by the EPA.

Moreover, both sodium chlorite and chlorine dioxide (nonhydrate) fall into Hazard Class 5.1 under the USPS rules and regulations, for which mailing is prohibited. Transportation of these materials via USPS is strictly prohibited, due to the danger of fire and explosion. Chlorine dioxide does not require air to combust and can cause coughing, wheezing, and respiratory distress. At very high exposure levels, it can be fatal. Records from Eco Shield LLC indicate that 1,744 Air Doctor Portables were shipped via the USPS to purchasers across the United States between March 1, 2020 and April 18, 2020. At least 300 of those shipments occurred after the defendants received notice that shipping by mail was unlawful.

The defendants imported the EcoAirDoctor badge from Japan, falsely describing it as air purifiers rather than pesticides, which would have subjected the entry to inspection by the EPA. In addition to falsely describing the nature of the goods, the entry documents undervalued the shipment by over $500,000, allowing the defendants to evade $33,919 in Customs duties. The sentence imposed required the defendants to pay restitution of $86,754 to U.S. Customs to cover the loss of duty and the cost of disposing of seized EcoAirDoctor badges.

The defendants profited handsomely from the sale of the illegally-imported pesticides. At the outset of the pandemic, the badges, purchased for $6.25 each, were then sold to the public in the United States for $20.95 each, plus shipping. During the first six months of 2020, the defendants pocketed $1,132,950 from the sale of the badges, including sales occurring outside the United States. The Federal Trade Commission issued a warning letter on April 27, 2020, advising the company not to make unsubstantiated claims for Coronavirus protection, and on July 24, 2020, the EPA issued a Stop, Sale, Use or Removal Order. The sentence requires the defendants to forfeit $427,689 in proceeds from the sale of the badges within the United States.

The EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division, HSI, and the USPS investigated the case.

Senior Trial Attorney Stephen Da Ponte of the Environment and Natural Resources Division’s Environmental Crimes Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Melanie K. Pierson for the Southern District of California prosecuted the case.

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