As word regarding the outbreak of Covid-19 began to spread in India, many of us queued up at medical stores to buy face masks. Without complete clarity from healthcare bodies, N95 masks saw a period of massive demand particularly through March and early April, leading to depleted stocks at almost all local stores. As many started looking for masks in online e-commerce stores, it came to light that numerous sellers listed counterfeit N95 masks. Some were even being sold at heavily inflated prices, and in the worst case scenario, the products were both fake and highly priced.
Dhirendra Singh, founder-director of Brand Protectors India, undertook an investigation into the sale of fake N95 masks at inflated prices across e-commerce stores in India, which included Flipkart, Snapdeal and ShopClues. The issue was two-part — one, the authenticity of the masks, and two, the heavily inflated prices that they were sold at for the interim period.
Fake, overpriced masks
Speaking to News18, Singh said, “Each of these masks were being sold by opportune sellers at a heavily inflated price point. For example, 3M’s N95 masks were listed in online medical shops such as Apollo Pharmacy at about Rs 150. The same were being sold across sites such as Flipkart, Snapdeal and ShopClues at significantly higher prices, marking up to 9x inflation in the prices of these masks.” Singh, whose organisation works closely with brands to identify counterfeits in the market, stated that both 3M and Honeywell individually confirmed that the said N95 masks found on e-commerce platforms were indeed fake.
The 3M particulate respirator 8210 on HealthKlin (left), and the same product sold at a heavily inflated price on Snapdeal (right).
In screenshots shared by Singh with News18, one particular variant — the 3M Particulate Respirator 8210, was found on online medical products retailer HealthKlin for Rs 93, and on Snapdeal for Rs 1,299. This marks for a ~14x inflation in the price of one mask. Of the four instances of significant price inflation of masks on Snapdeal shared by Singh, a company spokesperson verified with News18 that three of the four products were indeed listed on the platform at the inflated prices, and have been taken down already.
Further interesting points to note were the branding of these products. On Flipkart, the 3M N95 masks were custom-branded by sellers such as Glasszone and Friendskart, neither of which are verified resellers of 3M’s own products. The same were reflected in user reviews of the products as well, which stated that the products were merely “pieces of cloth with clips attached”. (See cover)
In some cases, the products showed price inflation of close to 14x the original cost.
Singh further said, “Within some time of writing about this on social platforms, these products were made unavailable on the said e-commerce platforms.” A search on Flipkart for these masks returned zero results, which is what makes matters more curious. In-demand products on e-commerce platforms are typically shown as ‘out of stock’ when they run out, and are removed only when either the product receives several complaints citing it as counterfeit. A product, as revealed by a Snapdeal executive, can also be removed when multiple complaints are registered against a seller.
What the platforms say
While it is impossible for an e-commerce platform to individually verify each and every product sold through them, it is important to note that as ‘intermediaries’, e-commerce services do have a certain level of accountability for the authenticity of popular products being sold through them.
A Flipkart spokesperson said in a statement to News18, “We have immediately communicated the government decision and needed compliance to our sellers with an advice to take necessary actions. We have additionally put in place technology solutions to maintain checks and balances to ensure the same. Should there be an instance where the sellers breach these directives, we have provisions in place for delisting as applicable.”
A ‘Glasszone’ 3M face mask listed on Flipkart before April 15, 2020 (left); as of today, April 28, the seller is no longer listed on the site (right).
Glasszone, one of the alleged sellers that peddled the fake masks on Flipkart, appears to have been banned already, while Friendskart, the other seller, do not list masks under their list of products any longer. The latter has a history of being on Flipkart for over three years, but sports a measly rating of 2.6 for the products that it sells.
Citing their seller verification procedure, he further added, “Snapdeal verifies the authenticity of the seller on the basis of GSTIN No. and maintains records of all transactions. Snapdeal offers information relating to its platform users with law enforcement agencies that may be specifically required by them lawfully.”
A ShopClues spokesperson failed to comment on the matter at the time of publishing of the report.
As of now, the alleged counterfeit masks appear to be either out of stock or removed from Flipkart and Snapdeal, although ShopClues still appears to be heavily inflating the price of a 3M 9004 mask and claiming to offer its buyers a hefty, 75 percent discount.
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