AG: Mislabeled face masks a public safety concern

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has accused a Wyoming man of creating dangerous confusion and taking advantage of consumers by claiming masks he was selling were N95-certified, the gold standard for protective masks.

The masks, sold in boxes labeled as N95s, were actually surgical masks, state investigators say. Surgical masks don’t provide the same level of protection as N95s.

“People are getting ripped off, if that’s the case, and paying for an inferior product and it may not be protecting them and that’s the very worst part about it,” Nessel told News 8 Tuesday.

About two weeks ago, the Penny Pinchers discount store on East Columbia Avenue in Battle Creek advertised on its Facebook page that it was selling N95 masks for $3. It also had a sign on the door promoting the sale of “Med Masks” — though but that handmade placard had been torn down by the time News 8 showed up Tuesday.

A photo of the “Med Mask Here” sign outside Penny Pinchers in Battle Creek. (Michigan Attorney General’s Office_

A consumer complaint brought investigators from the Michigan Attorney General’s Office to the store. According to a warrant request in Kent County Circuit Court, the owner told investigators that he received the masks — which he thought were N95s — from Kooz Concepts International.

Kooz has a business address at a UPS store near Burlingame Avenue and 44th Street SW in Wyoming.

It is owned and operated by Kraig Albert Koeze, who was born and raised in the Wyoming area, where the Koeze name and reputation is well-known. He now lives in Jenison.

“He’s been an importer/exporter his entire adult life, over 30 years,” his attorney Andrew Rodenhouse told News 8. “He’s very concerned that is going to ruin his reputation.”

Koeze said he got into the mask importing business after a cousin who worked for a health care provider in Virginia was desperate for masks of any type. He said he tracked down a provider out of China.

>>PDFs: Subpoena petition | State’s exhibits

Rodenhouse said that when the AG’s Office contacted his client, Koeze cooperated, providing the information it wanted. The attorney said Koeze was under the impression that he was doing what he needed to do — until he was blindsided by the announcement of the AG’s investigation.

Rodenhouse said his client paid about 86 cents for the masks and sold them to Penny Pinchers for $1.20. The store then sold them for about $3. The AG claims that Penny Pinchers owner James Zeibell was unaware the masks were not legitimate.

“Of course, the only evidence they have of that is the word of the party that got caught,” Rodenhouse said. “The only person identified as having made this claim is Penny Pinchers, who got caught trying to sell these as N95 masks for three times the amount they paid for them.”

Information supplied to the AG’s Office by Koeze showed the masks were also supplied to businesses in Okemos, near Lansing: 3,000 to the Ingham County Medical Facility, 300 to Bickford Senior Living Center and 600 to a McDonald’s.

Koeze said he never represented the masks as N95-certified and that the other businesses contacted by the AG reported they knew they weren’t getting N95s.

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It could turn into a criminal investigation, but for now is a civil investigation. There are more subpoenas due by Friday.

“It’s a public safety issue. People are obviously very concerned about getting the COVID-19 virus,” Nessel said.

She said her office is still investigating how many people got the masks.

“When you have nursing homes and others that are purchasing these masks, it is with the belief that these masks are going to protect them more than a dust mask would,” Nessel said. “If it’s not going to secure you or protect you any more than putting a regular piece pf fabric over you face, why would you pay good money for it?”

Nessel said as the pandemic continues, instances of fraud are growing.

“Unfortunately, this is very prevalent,” she said.

She said her office will aggressively prosecute instances of price-gouging or misrepresentation, but she said consumers also need to do their part in making sure they are not being scammed.

Consumers can file a complaint online or by calling the Consumer Protection tip line at 877.765.8388 between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. 

**Correction: A previous version of this article included a photo of a man labeled as Kraig Koeze that was not Koeze. News 8 regrets the error.