Tens of millions of dirty, used, and counterfeit nitrile gloves - some of them stained with blood - have been shipped to the United States from Thailand in recent months as fraudsters look to take advantage of the surge in demand for medical equipment due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
An investigation conducted by CNN has found that Thai companies are repackaging used gloves and reselling them worldwide, including in the US, where federal authorities are only beginning to understand the scope of the crisis.
Earlier this year, Thai law enforcement agencies raided warehouses of companies who sold reused nitrile gloves abroad. Workers at the warehouses used dye to color the used gloves and laundry dryers to dry them after washing.
In February and March, a US company warned the Biden administration that it had received shipments with visibly soiled gloves from a company based in Thailand.
The warning was issued to both Customs and Border Protection as well as the Food and Drug Administration.
Despite the warnings, the counterfeit shipments continued to be imported into the country as recently as July, according to CNN.
Earlier this year, Thai police raided a warehouse that was repackaging and selling used, counterfeit medical grade nitrile gloves
Thailand-based warehouses would ship the used gloves to the United States, making millions in profit even though the products they were selling were counterfeit
In February and March, a US company warned the Biden administration that it had received shipments with visibly soiled gloves from a company based in Thailand. The warning was issued to both Customs and Border Protection as well as the Food and Drug Administration
Workers at the warehouses used dye to color the used gloves and laundry dryers to dry them after washing
In order to meet the emergency demand, the federal government lifted important regulations at the height of the pandemic - enabling the shipments of defective gloves to enter the country.
Medical nitrile gloves are used by doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals who examine patients.
After the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic and most governments announced mitigation measures, demand for the nitrile gloves skyrocketed.
As supply dwindled, fraudsters found an opportunity to take advantage by selling soiled, second-hand gloves at a profit to governments and hospitals that were running desperately low on medical grade nitrile gloves.
In the US, the FDA has banned the use of powdered latex gloves.
Medical grade nitrile gloves are produced mostly in south and east Asia using natural rubber.
The factories that produce the gloves use highly specialized manufacturing processes and expertise, making it difficult to ramp up supply in a short period of time.
That created a void filled by shady businesses looking to turn a quick profit selling bogus gloves.
The image above shows a pair of soiled, used gloves that were seized in raids by police in Thailand
Tarek Kirschen, a Miami-based businessman, ordered $2million worth of gloves from Paddy the Room, a Thai-based company.
Kirschen then sold the gloves to an American distributor.
'We start getting phone calls from clients completely upset, and you know, yelling and screaming at us saying, "Hey, you screwed us",' he told CNN.
'These were reused gloves. They were washed, recycled...Some of them were dirty.
'Some of them had bloodstains. Some of them had markers on them with dates from two years ago... I couldn't believe my eyes.'
Kirschen told CNN he refunded the money to his clients and threw the gloves into a landfill.
In February, he notified the FDA.
According to CNN, other American distributors purchased 200 million gloves from Paddy the Room during the pandemic.
Two of the distributors told CNN that the shipments were substandards and that the gloves weren't even nitrile.
Uweport, a US-based company, said it was unable to resell the gloves to medical companies.
Instead, the gloves were sold at a lower price to distributors that supply food processing plants, hotels, and restaurants.
US Liberty LLC told CNN that it purchased gloves from a Vietnamese company. The gloves had holes, stains, rips, and were in different shades and colors, the company president said.
'It's ridiculously nefarious at every link in the chain,' industry expert Douglas Stein told CNN.
Stein said he has warned US companies against going for deals that appear too good to be true.
Tarek Kirschen, a Miami-based businessman, ordered $2million worth of gloves from Paddy the Room, a Thai-based company. Kirschen then sold the gloves to an American distributor. He said the gloves turned out to be defective
Louis Ziskin, the owner of the company AirQueen, purchased $2.7million up front for an order of gloves from Paddy the Room through a third party.
'We saw dollar signs. We also saw we had legitimate medical customers who were literally begging for this stuff,' he told CNN.
But the gloves that Ziskin purchased weren't even made of nitrile. Instead, they were lower-grade latex or vinyl, and many of them were soiled and used.
When Ziskin saw the defective products, he said he could not in good conscience offer them up to hospitals.
'It's a total safety issue... to me the fact that these companies were never blacklisted is shocking,' he told CNN.
Ziskin traveled to Thailand in an attempt to recoup the $2.7million his company lost.
He and several others were arrested and charged with assault and kidnapping after a confrontation in a Bangkok restaurant. Zikin has denied the allegations.
‘I'm going to see this through to the very end,’ he vowed.
‘Am I going to get my money back for the company? Most likely not.
‘Are we bringing a light to this to where hopefully, the United States can get up off the bench and stop it? Yeah.
‘If that's what justice is, then that's what my hope is.’
Thai police missed a deadline to present evidence in the case. As a result, Ziskin was allowed to leave Thailand and return home to Los Angeles.
Thai authorities said the investigation is ongoing.
According to Thai authorities, warehouse workers used dye to color the gloves before repackaging the counterfeit merchandise and shipping it to the United States
In July, DHS officials seized 70,000 boxes of counterfeit gloves from Ziskin’s Los Angeles warehouse. The boxes are now evidence in the investigation against Paddy the Room.
CBP officials told CNN that it seized 40 million counterfeit face masks and hundreds of thousands of other PPE (personal protective equipment) items.
The agency said it has not tracked the volume of seized gloves.
Since the start of the pandemic, DHS has made more than 2,000 seizures of suspected counterfeit PPE.
'I think DHS has been a model around the world for how best to coordinate efforts among different agencies to really stop the import, the transactions and all the other surrounding criminal activity around Covid,' DHS Investigations Special Operations Agent Mike Rose told CNN.
Last December, Thai police raided Paddy the Room. Investigators found piles of garbage bags filled with loose gloves of various colors, quality, and materials.
The workers at the factory were stuffing old gloves into new, counterfeit boxes branded with the insignia of another Thai-based manufacturer, SriTrang.
SriTrang, which is considered a legitimate company, told CNN that it does not do business with Paddy the Room.
Thai police arrested the warehouse owner, but Paddy the Room continued operating from another location.
Medical grade nitrile gloves (like those seen in the above file photo) are produced mostly in south and east Asia using natural rubber. The factories that produce the gloves use highly specialized manufacturing processes and expertise, making it difficult to ramp up supply in a short period of time
'They just moved to another location, to another warehouse,' said Supattra Boonserm, the deputy secretary-general of the Thai Food and Drug Administration.
'And why is that? Because the demand for gloves is still high. There are still customers waiting out there.'
Thai authorities have staged at least 10 raids in recent months, seizing boxes of used and substandard gloves.
Investigators even found workers scrubbing used gloves by hand in wash bowls and dyeing them with food coloring.
Thai authorities said the workers would dry the gloves by placing them in a dryer.
Many of the used gloves are collected from China or Indonesia and then shipped to Thailand to be washed, dried, and re-packaged.
'In simple terms, it's fraud,' Boonserm says.
'Under this outbreak situation, the demand is enormous both from hospitals and the general public. The volume of illegal gloves we have found is enormous.'