A COVID-19 shot for $150? Online fraud rises as slow vaccine rollout frustrates


By Tina Bellon

NEW YORK (Reuters) – As millions of people wait their turn to receive a COVID-19 vaccine that could be months away, scammers are luring victims online, in emails and on messaging apps with claims they could fire shots in a matter of days for as little as $150.

COVID-19 vaccine scams are on the rise, according to European and US government officials who are warning the public about scammers out to steal money and personal information.

A Reuters search online, dark web forums and messaging app Telegram found seven different offers of alleged COVID-19 vaccines.

Scams include emails promising entry into supposedly secret early access vaccine lists and robocallers posing as government agencies. Message boards on the so-called Dark Web have added COVID-19 vaccines to more traditional illicit goods for sale.

The US FBI and Interpol, among others, have warned of emerging pandemic-related fraud schemes, stating that bogus cures and vaccines promoted on bogus websites could pose cyber threats and pose a significant risk to people’s health or even lives .

Website domains that contain the word vaccine in combination with COVID-19 or coronavirus have more than doubled since October to around 2,500 in November, when the first legitimate vaccines were close to regulatory approval, according to cybersecurity firm Recorded Future, the COVID-19 scam tracked online.

“So far, many of these domains appear to be just opportunistic registrations, but some are used for phishing attempts to trick people into clicking (malicious) links,” said Lindsay Kaye, director of operational outcomes at Recorded Future.

Kaye said her team, which is also scouring the dark web, has so far encountered no legitimate vaccine that has been diverted from healthcare facilities or national stockpiles.

The scams are capitalizing on concerns about the much slower than promised rollout of vaccines to protect against the virus, which has so far claimed more than 1.8 million lives worldwide. Most people will likely have to wait well into spring or even summer to get their shots.

In the United States, only about 4.5 million people had received their first vaccination as of Monday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. That’s a fraction of the 20 million that previous government forecasts said should be vaccinated by the end of 2020.

VACCINES, GUNS AND MONEY

On the dark web forum Agartha, fake COVID-19 vaccines have been offered alongside cocaine, opioid drugs, “very high quality counterfeit money”, handguns and gift cards. The posts featured stock photos of vaccines and offered vials for $500 and $1,000 or the equivalent in bitcoin.

On another dark website, a seller claiming to be from the “Wuhan Institute of Science” offered COVID-19 vaccines in exchange for a donation and asked buyers to provide their medical history.

On Telegram, several channels said they were offering COVID-19 vaccines along with stock images. One user offered supposed Moderna Inc vaccines for $180 and claimed Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE’s vaccine was $150 and AstraZeneca’s was $110 per vial.

When asked how the vaccines would be shipped, the account creator said they would be shipped in “temperature-regulated packs” and ice packs within days or overnight for an additional charge.

Actual COVID-19 vaccines, particularly the Pfizer/BioNTech offering, need to be temperature controlled to remain effective, with drugmakers outfitting shipments with temperature trackers to ensure the cold chain. The shipment and distribution of vaccines are also strictly controlled by officials and are administered free of charge.

The United States has so far approved two emergency COVID-19 vaccines – those from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. The European Union has approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine so far and is expected to approve the Moderna vaccine this week.

The UK has already approved these two and has just added the vaccine developed by Oxford University with AstraZeneca.

When asked about vaccine fraud, Pfizer said it took careful steps to reduce the risk of counterfeiting and was following trends very closely.

“Patients should never attempt to secure a vaccine online — no legitimate vaccine is sold online — and should only be vaccinated at certified immunization centers or by certified healthcare providers,” a Pfizer spokesman said in a statement.

Moderna forwarded a request for comment to the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which did not respond. AstraZeneca did not respond to a request for comment.

HHS, the FBI, and the U.S. Department of Justice have urged the public to report any COVID-19 vaccine scam, including people soliciting out-of-pocket payments for the vaccine and online vaccine advertisements.

Previous Yale global URL landing page
Next One-year-old local boy stabbed to death over blanket by 9-year-old brother