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Beware bogus COVID vaccine offers proliferating on the "dark web"

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Top WHO official says vaccines alone "not enough" to defeat COVID-19 07:26

For months, the internet has been filled with offers of PPE that turns out to be counterfeit and COVID tests that are actually phony, as well as ads for under-the-table miracle virus cures. Now, reports CBS Chicago, "dark web" digital sellers are moving into a new territory — marketing COVID-19 vaccines, capitalizing on fear and scarcity across the globe.

The dark web is meant to connect unidentified buyers with anonymous sellers. With millions of people hoping to get a precious COVID-19 vaccine, there's something new lurking in this often seedy space.

"It's very, very specific type of vaccine and getting something ahead of time … skipping the line and getting to the front" is a big draw, Mark Ostrowski, head of engineering for the cybersecurity company Check Point, told CBS Chicago.

His team has found that in just the last six weeks, the number of vaccine ads on the dark web has exploded. The asking prices have doubled or even quadrupled.

Search results tease potential buyers with language like "available now" and "going fast!" One offer — $300 for 14 doses — looks like a steal, $200 below the $500 original price. This seller even offered a 100% refund if the vaccine failed to arrive.

Or there's another seller who offered to ship to the United Kingdom, the United States and Spain.

The best method of correspondence? Encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp or Telegram. That's where the Check Point team started messaging these sellers to try to learn more. They found another offer, a bulk discount: 10,000 bottles of the COVID vaccine for $30,000.

One dark web seller even messaged a picture of a "sample" bottle of vaccine with a December expiration date. Another wanted $1,500 for four doses of a "Chinese vaccine."

The Check Point team even sent a seller the Bitcoin payment to see what they would get in return.

"Our expectations were low, and, of course, they weren't met," said Ostrowski.

A few days after the Bitcoin transaction, Check Point received a message from the vendor saying the vaccine had been shipped. Then a few days later, that vendor's account completely disappeared from the site.

And then — you guessed it — Check Point never got anything in the mail.

And it's not just vaccine that's being peddled.

The Check Point team also found ads for the malaria medication hydroxychloroquine, once falsely touted by former President Trump to treat COVID-19. All clinical trials conducted during 2020 found hydroxychloroquine was ineffective against COVID.

As far as Ostrowski can tell, none of these sellers really has any of the COVID-19 vaccines.

But as time goes by, and more people get access to legitimate doses, there's always the possibility that some of that real product could make its way onto the dark web.

"So that's how these … things [typically] work, where goods are being offered, money is transferred and then, poof, these go away," said Ostrowski. "That's what makes it really dangerous because you really don't know what you're getting. So you're putting not only yourself at risk if something like this happens, but if you're getting multiple doses and trying to resell it, the risk is so huge."

Back in December, INTERPOL saw this coming. It issued a global alert to law enforcement across 194 countries warning them about organized crime networks targeting COVID-19 vaccines, both physically and online.

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