Local Firm and Owner Sentenced in COVID-19 Fraud Scheme | USAO-SDCA

Assistant U. S. Attorney Melanie K. Pierson (619) 546-7976

NEWS RELEASE SUMMARY – August 12, 2022

SAN DIEGO – Eco Shield, LLC and its owner, Samir Haj, were sentenced in federal court today in connection with the importation, shipping and sale of “EcoAirDoctor” during the pandemic.

Haj was sentenced to eight months in custody, and both defendants (Eco Shield and Haj) were ordered to forfeit $427,689 in proceeds and pay restitution of $86,754, while the company was ordered to pay a fine of $42,000. EcoAirDoctor consisted of a small badge clipped to clothing that released chlorine dioxide into the air and was represented by the defendants to protect the user “from airborne infectious diseases” including COVID-19. 

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.”

The EcoAirDoctor badge consisted of sodium chlorite and natural zeolite.  When the product was opened, the zeolite contacted 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 people are exposed to exceed the reference concentration. The documentation provided by Eco Shield, LLC states that 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. Based on these figures, if the defendants’ product emitted chlorine dioxide gas at levels deemed safe by the EPA, it would not be at levels sufficient to kill viruses.

Both sodium chlorite and chlorine dioxide (nonhydrate) fall into Hazard Class 5.1 under the U.S. Postal Service (“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 for it to burn and can cause coughing, wheezing, and respiratory distress. At very high exposure levels, it can be fatal. Records from Eco Shield, LLC indicated 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.

“This product not only didn’t work, but it was even potentially harmful,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “The defendant and his company will be held to account for cashing in on Covid fears during a global pandemic.” Grossman thanked the prosecution team and investigating agencies for their excellent work on this case.

“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 HSI San Diego Special Agent in Charge Chad Plantz. “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 US Postal Service and the communities we serve.  Preventing the dangerous misuse of the nation’s mail system remains one of our top priorities,” stated Inspector in Charge Carroll N Harris.

This case was investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Postal Service. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Melanie K. Pierson of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California and Senior Trial Attorney Stephen Da Ponte of the Environmental Crimes Section of the Department of Justice.

DEFENDANTS                                 Case Number 21cr1463-JLS                                               

EcoShield, LLC                                                                                 

Samir Haj                                            Age: 47                                   San Diego, CA

SUMMARY OF CHARGES

Entry of Goods Falsely Classified – Title 18, U.S.C., Section 541

Maximum penalty: Two years in custody, $250,000 fine, restitution and forfeiture

Mailing of Injurious Substances – Title 18, U.S.C., Section 1716(j)(1)

Maximum penalty: One year in custody, $100,000 fine

Sale/Distribution of Unregistered Pesticide – Title 7, U.S.C., Section 136j(a)(1)(A) and 136l(b)(1)(B)

Maximum penalty: One year in custody, $100,000 fine

AGENCIES

Homeland Security Investigations; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Criminal Investigation Division; U.S. Postal Inspection Service

California Department of Toxic Substances Control, Office of Criminal Investigations

*On May 17, 2021, the Attorney General established the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force to marshal the resources of the Department of Justice in partnership with agencies across government to enhance efforts to combat and prevent pandemic-related fraud. The Task Force bolsters efforts to investigate and prosecute the most culpable domestic and international criminal actors and assists agencies tasked with administering relief programs to prevent fraud by, among other methods, augmenting and incorporating existing coordination mechanisms, identifying resources and techniques to uncover fraudulent actors and their schemes, and sharing and harnessing information and insights gained from prior enforcement efforts. For more information on the Department’s response to the pandemic, please visit https://www.justice.gov/coronavirus.

Anyone with information about allegations of attempted fraud involving COVID-19 can report it by calling the Department of Justice’s National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) Hotline at 866-720-5721 or via the NCDF Web Complaint Form at: https://www.justice.gov/disaster-fraud/ncdf-disaster-complaint-form.

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