California Defendants Sentenced in COVID-19 Fraud Scheme

The Department of Justice issued a press release on Monday that described the sentencing of a California man who pleaded guilty to the illegal importation of pesticides. Samir Haj of San Diego was sentenced to eight months in custody for importing, shipping, and selling illegally imported pesticides that were falsely advertised as products claiming to protect users from airborne infectious diseases.

Haj pleaded guilty in May of 2021. Both Haj and his firm, Eco Shield LLC, were ordered to forfeit the $427,689 in profit and pay restitution totaling $86,754. Eco Shield was ordered to pay an additional penalty of $42,000.

The defendants manufactured and marketed the EcoAirDoctor, which the press release describes as a “small gas-emitting badge that defendants claimed would kill viruses within a certain distance.” In Japan, the product was marketed as being able to kill airborne viruses, including COVID-19.

The press release states that any product making such public-health claims must be regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — and must undergo “extensive testing to substantiate the claims of efficacy and safety prior to approving them for registration and sale.” But defendant’s product was not registered with the EPA, and testing revealed that the product was not effective at killing a useful number of airborne microbes.

Defendant’s product was even potentially harmful, the press release explains. The product consisted largely of sodium chlorite and natural zeolite, and when the product was opened and the two chemicals interacted, the product released a chlorine dioxide gas that exceeded EPA-permitted levels. USPS rules prohibit transporting both sodium chlorite and chlorine dioxide, given high danger of fire and explosion. To pass inspection, defendants apparently shipped their products by labeling them as purifiers, not pesticides. By illegally importing pesticides, the defendants apparently turned a significant profit.

The Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, Todd Kim, said that the prosecution “sends a strong message that circumventing federal environmental and public safety laws in order to profit from the public’s fears during a pandemic will not be tolerated.”