Operations researcher helps to halt trade of counterfeit PPE 


State officials across the country have seized counterfeit N95 masks. Sometimes, they were caught when entering the country, some were on the brink of being distributed to hospital workers, and others had to be recalled right out of the hands of nurses. 

But it isn’t enough to simply know how to spot them once they arrive at the doorsteps of hospitals and essential workers, and a multidisciplinary team has formed at Mason to disrupt the illicit supply chain of counterfeit PPE by identifying the source of counterfeiting respirators and how they enter legitimate supply chains.  

Edward Huang from the College of Engineering and Computing and Louise Shelley from the Schar School of Policy and Government received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to combine their expertise and analyze the supply chain for counterfeit goods coming into the United States.  

Their project has three parts. The first part is understanding how the illicit supply chains work. The research team will use data and cybersecurity measures to learn how payments are processed, how they are hosting their websites, and how they communicate. “They need to find customers, and the internet is their best way to do that. Criminals usually set up websites, and we can look at those websites to learn where and who they are,” says Huang.  

They will also examine the transportation of the goods. “Eventually, they ship to the United States. We are looking at the transportation systems where counterfeiting goods enter legitimate supply chains like airports or seaports,” says Huang.  

Fully understanding the path illicit goods take to get into the country allows them to move onto the next step, constructing descriptions of the supply chain that can help find ways to disrupt it. “This kind of criminal activity, if we analyze the people behind it and their overall supply chain, we can find patterns,” says Huang.  

Their analysis will eventually lead to studying strategies that government and corporate stakeholders can take to disrupt the chain before it reaches our shores.  

Huang and Shelley’s work combines artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, data mining, sociological analysis, policy, and more to find patterns that can be disrupted in the supply chain. “As engineers, we have the ability to use these tools like data mining to do great work, but we have to know which questions to ask,” says Huang.  

Their five-year grant also includes funding to hire undergraduate students, one in the Schar School and one in the College of Engineering and Computing’s Department of Cyber Security Engineering. Together, the multidisciplinary team’s real-world implementation strategies can help halt the illicit supply chain altogether. 

Already, the team has noticed that some counterfeiters are involved in two or three types of illicit activity. “We noticed some of these criminals switched to counterfeit PPE last year because of the pandemic,” says Huang. And it is knowledge like this that helps them understand illicit supply chains long-term and their convergence.  

“Counterfeit masks are nearly everywhere during the pandemic. 3M reported more than 38 million counterfeit respirators since March 2020,” says Huang.