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Dark net vendors tout likely fake COVID-19 vaccines as prices soar – researchers

No way of knowing illicit vaccines are genuine, even as demand spikes; Check Point snoops bought a $750 ‘Chinese vaccine’ that never showed up, seller account disappeared

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

An illustrative image of cyber crime, the dark net, dark web and compuer hackers (Tick-Tock; iStock by Getty Images)
An illustrative image of cyber crime, the dark net, dark web and compuer hackers (Tick-Tock; iStock by Getty Images)

Vendors on the dark net are touting coronavirus vaccines with price tags of up to $1,000 for a dose of an unspecified product that is likely to be fake, Check Point Software security researchers said.

The dark net or deep web is an online universe that works in parallel to the internet we know. It is a realm many people are unaware of, a zone where users can surf anonymously and largely without a trace, populated by arms dealers, pedophiles, terrorists and cyber criminals, among others. You can hire a hit man on the dark web, or buy a stolen credit card, and do so without leaving a footprint.

The Check Point researchers started scouting the dark net for offers of counterfeit coronavirus vaccines in early December, and they found them being offered for sale with prices starting at around $250. That was around the time when COVID-19 vaccines became officially available worldwide.

Purchasers have no way of knowing whether drugs are being offered on the dark net are genuine. All of the vendors the researchers found only accepted payments in bitcoin, to minimize the chance of the transactions being traced, and casting further doubt on the authenticity of the medicines being sold, the researchers said in a blog post published on Wednesday.

Vendors on the dark net are touting fake offers for coronavirus vaccines, asking for prices of up to $1,000 for an unspecified dose of the medication, Check Point Software Security researchers say (Courtesy)

One vender the researchers communicated with in December offered to sell an unspecified COVID-19 vaccine for 0.01 bitcoins (some $300), and claimed that 14 doses were required for it to be effective. This of course doesn’t match the recommended dosage of any of the approved vaccines, the Check Point researchers said.

Now, as multiple vaccines have gained regulatory approvals and are being rolled out globally, the researchers forayed once again into the dark net in the first week of January to see what was being offered. They found that the number of advertisements for vaccines “has exploded, and the asking prices have doubled or even quadrupled,” the researchers wrote.

“We believe this is because of a spike in demand from individuals who don’t wish to wait weeks or months to receive their vaccination from their countries’ governments,” they said.

A dark net search for COVID-19 vaccines returned multiple pages of results, amounting to “hundreds of advertisements,” presenting an overall 400%-plus increase since early December. For example, a simple search query for “covid vaccines” returned over 340 advertisements, in 34 pages, compared to just eight pages of results from a similar query the researchers ran early December.

The prices of the illicit vaccines have also risen sharply. Whereas in early December the average price tag was the equivalent of some $250, now the vendors were asking for the equivalent of $500 or even $1,000 for an unspecified dose.

The range of vaccine brands has also changed, the researchers said. Before approved vaccines started to be distributed globally, sellers were offering “made in China” vaccines, which were unbranded and not FDA approved. Since the distribution of FDA-approved brands globally, “most sellers are now advertising selling these as named brands, or simply not specifying the vaccine’s brand,” they wrote.

Doses of the Pfizer-Biontech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at a vaccination center in Magdeburg, eastern Germany, on December 27, 2020. (Ronny Hartmann / POOL / AFP)

To test the trustworthiness of the transactions, the Check Point researchers placed an order for a vaccine dose from a vendor, using the Telegram app for the interaction. They got the vendor’s contact details and phone number via a dark net forum, and contacted them via their Telegram user name. They were offered a Chinese vaccine for $750.

The researchers made the payment, using bitcoin, provided their delivery address and asked for the shipment details.

After a few days without response, the researchers got a message from the vendor saying the vaccine had been shipped. A few days later, the vendor’s account was deleted. The purported vaccine never arrived.

The researchers also noticed that vaccines are now being sold in bulk, as opposed to the previously offered single doses.

“This may indicate the growth of a black market that aims to attract those who can afford it to buy their vaccinations in bulk for their families and friends, without waiting for official inoculation programs,” they wrote.

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