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COVID-19: Scammers sell fake vaccines on dark web amid slow rollout

Scammers are offering fake COVID-19 vaccines online, in e-mails and on messaging apps, luring victims by claiming they can deliver shots within days for as little as $150 up to $1,000.

US government and European officials say coronavirus vaccine scams are on the rise and are warning the public against fraudsters who swindle customers out of money and personal data. 

Some of these scams have emerged on dark web forums such as Agartha and on messaging app Telegram, where seven different offers for alleged vaccines were found.  

These schemes also appeared in e-mails promising entry to supposed secret lists for early vaccine access and robocallers impersonating government agencies. 

Now the US, FBI and Interpol are warning of pandemic-related fraud schemes, exploiting concerns over the slower-than-promised rollout of the vaccines. Most Americans will have to wait well into the spring and summer to get their shot.  

Scammers are offering fake COVID-19 vaccines on the dark web, in e-mails, messaging apps, and through robocalls impersonating goverment agencies amid the slow rollout. A view of an ad for supposed COVID-19 vaccines on the dark web above

Screenshot of ads for alleged COVID-19 vaccines in the US charging $250 for the shot above

Screenshot of ads for alleged COVID-19 vaccines in the US charging $250 for the shot above

Just 4.66 million COVID-19 vaccines have been administered across the US in the last three weeks despite federal officials having distributed 15.4 million doses to the states. That is a fraction of the 20 million who were supposed to have been vaccinated by the end of 2020, according to earlier government forecasts

Just 4.66 million COVID-19 vaccines have been administered across the US in the last three weeks despite federal officials having distributed 15.4 million doses to the states. That is a fraction of the 20 million who were supposed to have been vaccinated by the end of 2020, according to earlier government forecasts

Just 4.66 million COVID-19 vaccines have been administered across the US in the last three weeks despite federal officials having distributed 15.4 million doses to the states. 

It means more than two-thirds of the vaccines shipped within the US have gone unused and just 1.4 percent of the population has been vaccinated as cases, deaths and hospitalizations continue to surge across the US. 

That is a fraction of the 20 million who were supposed to have been vaccinated by the end of 2020, according to earlier government forecasts. 

One in 930 Americans have now died from COVID-19 with the death toll surging past 353,000 and the seven-day rolling average for fatalities at just over 2,600 per day. 

On the dark web, COVID-19 vaccines are being advertised next to traditional illicit goods for sale. 

On dark web forum Agartha, fake COVID-19 vaccines were offered next to cocaine, opioid medication, ‘super high quality fake money,’ hand guns and gift cards.

Posts showed stock photos of vaccines and offered vials for $500 and $1,000, or the equivalent in Bitcoin. 

On another dark web site, 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 claimed to offer COVID-19 vaccines, accompanied by stock images. 

One user offered supposed Moderna Inc vaccines for $180, and claimed the vaccine from Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE could be had for $150 and AstraZeneca’s for $110 per vial.

Asked how the vaccines would be shipped, the account creator said they were transported in ‘regulated temperature packs’ and ice packs within a few days, or overnight for an additional charge.

The United States has so far authorized two COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use - the ones from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna

The United States has so far authorized two COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use – the ones from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna 

Dr. Melisha Cumberland is given the the second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine twenty-one days after receiving the first shot from RN Valerie Massaro of Hartford HealthCare, at the Hartford Convention Center in Hartford, Connecticut on January 4

Dr. Melisha Cumberland is given the the second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine twenty-one days after receiving the first shot from RN Valerie Massaro of Hartford HealthCare, at the Hartford Convention Center in Hartford, Connecticut on January 4

Website domains containing the word vaccine in combination with COVID-19 or coronavirus more than doubled since October to roughly 2,500 in November, when the first legitimate vaccines were nearing regulatory approval, according to cybersecurity firm Recorded Future, which is tracking COVID-19 fraud online. 

‘So far a lot of these domains just appear to be opportunistic registrations, but some are going to be used for phishing attempts to have people click on (malicious) links,’ said Lindsay Kaye, director of operational outcomes at Recorded Future. 

She said her team, which also scours the dark web, has not come across any legitimate vaccine that was diverted from healthcare facilities or national stockpiles. 

The real COVID-19 vaccines, particularly the Pfizer/BioNTech offering, must be temperature controlled to remain effective.

Drugmakers have equipped shipments with temperature trackers to ensure they remain cold and distribution is tightly controlled by officials and will be administered at no cost.  

The United States has so far authorized two COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use – the ones from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. The European Union to date has authorized the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and is expected to clear the Moderna vaccine this week.

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

Asked about vaccine scams, Pfizer said it had taken meticulous steps to reduce the risk of counterfeiting and tracked trends very carefully.

‘Patients should never try to secure a vaccine online – no legitimate vaccine is sold online – and only get vaccinated at certified vaccination centers or by certified healthcare providers,’ a Pfizer spokesman said in a statement.

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

According to a state-by-state breakdown, Kansas and Georgia have only administered 17 percent of the doses distributed to them. Hard-hit California has so far used 24 percent of its vaccine shots, while Florida has used 23 percent

According to a state-by-state breakdown, Kansas and Georgia have only administered 17 percent of the doses distributed to them. Hard-hit California has so far used 24 percent of its vaccine shots, while Florida has used 23 percent

Those who encounter COVID-19 vaccines are urged to report them, including people asking for out-of-pocket payments or online vaccine ads.  

Surgeon General Jerome Adams on Tuesday admitted that the largest vaccination campaign in US history, which has been in the works for months amid the pandemic, has been a ‘little bit messy’.

He blamed, in part, the states for the slower than expected rollout despite the federal government falling short of its initial promise to have 20 million vaccinated by the end of 2020.

The race to vaccinate American quickly comes as a super-contagious mutant strain of COVID-19 that has forced the UK into its third lockdown has already been detected in the US. Ten people, who are spread across New York, California, Colorado and Florida, have been confirmed to have the variant of the virus. 

So far California has only vaccinated 1 percent of its 40 million population and the Governors of New York and Florida have vowed to penalize hospitals that fail to dispense shots quickly.  


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