In the wake of a U.N. report that criminal organizations are exploiting the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) amid the COVID-19 crisis, a coalition of private and public partners have launched a campaign to fight back.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), international criminal groups are selling sub-par PPE or running scams where they collect money and never provide the product.

“COVID-19 has been the catalyst for a hitherto unseen global market for the trafficking of PPE. There is also some evidence of the trafficking of other forms of substandard and falsified medical products, but not to the same extent as PPE,” the report said.

In response, a group of businesses and public-sector organizations has joined together to launch an ad campaign to combat the trade in fraudulent goods.

Philip Morris International Inc. (PMI), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Procter & Gamble are among a group of companies behind an advertising campaign designed to raise awareness of the trade in fraudulent PPE and spotlight the Department of Homeland Security’s resources.

Corey Henry, PMI’s U.S. communications director, says “exceptionally sophisticated” international criminals are taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic. PMI is a multinational cigarette and tobacco manufacturing company, with products sold in more than 180 countries.

“The very same people that traffic in illegal tobacco may very well be trafficking in COVID-19 products,” Henry told InsideSources. “Illegal criminal organizations around the world are very interconnected in the products they trade in and are not limited to one subset of products.

“We know the thoroughness of these organizations in terms of where they operate, how they operate, what they sell,” he said. “They are expanding and the criminals are using the pandemic to take advantage of a tragic situation.”

The coalition also includes organizations whose mission is to fight fraudulent international trade like Transnational Alliance to Combat Illicit Trade and Luna Global Networks.

“COVID-19 has mutated criminality to a higher level of danger as corrupt regimes and criminals enrich themselves through an illicit trade pandemic that puts the health and safety of all citizens and communities at risk, such as fake medicines and counterfeited medical equipment and supplies,”  David M. Luna, president & CEO, Luna Global Networks said in a statement.

Other members of the partnership include United States Council for International Business (USCIB); Merck & Co., Inc.; Tommy Hilfiger;  Under Armour; SAS; and the Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Center at Michigan State University.

In their release announcing the campaign, PMI sited ICE data showing there have been nearly 1,000 COVID-19 related seizures of prohibited test kits and medicine, counterfeit masks and other equipment in the U.S., which has accounted for $17.9 million in disrupted transactions and recovered funds.

“Government agencies are doing all they can and are achieving success intercepting these products and equipment — but many fraudulent products still are being illegally distributed,” said Martin King, CEO of PMI America.

“PMI is pleased to be joined by so many in the private sector who are all too familiar with the insidious trade in illegal goods and the vast international criminal networks that profit from deception,” added King.

In addition, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) launched Operation Stolen Promise to protect the nation from the increasing and evolving threat posed by COVID-19-related fraud and criminal activity.

Operation Stolen Promise, which was launched in April, “combines HSI’s expertise in global trade, financial fraud, international operations, cyber-crime, and criminal analysis to investigate financial fraud schemes, the importation of prohibited pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, websites defrauding consumers, and any other illicit criminal activities associated with the virus that compromises legitimate trade or financial systems or endangers the public.”

And, the problem goes far beyond the U.S. and has caught the attention of the United Nations.

Health and lives are at risk with criminals exploiting the COVID-19 crisis to cash in on public anxiety and increased demand for PPE and medications,” said Ghada Waly, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.