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COVID-19 vaccine doses have been sold on the dark web. Are they real?

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Sellers on 15 different "dark web" marketplaces have dispersed hundreds of doses of what they allege are COVID-19 vaccines, according to a new study by cybersecurity firm Kaspersky. What's more, Kaspersky's researchers believe a significant portion of those sales, as much as 30%, could be of actual vaccines.

"There is evidence that suggests some of these sellers are providing real doses," said Dmitry Galov, a researcher at Kaspersky who led the study of illicit online vaccines sales. "There are pictures of packaging and medical certificates. It looks like some of these people do have inside access to medical institutions."

The doses are available for as much as $1,200 a pop, and Kaspersky researchers, who finished their study two weeks ago, say some vaccine hawkers have completed as many as 500 transactions. Galov said the prices have been rising recently and that all of the sales are conducted in cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin, making them hard to track. But at least some of the sellers claimed they were located in the United States, according to the study. Other sellers said they were based in Europe. 

Most of the sellers appeared to be unsophisticated and were only offering a few doses each. Still, Galov said the Kaspersky researchers found at least a handful of sellers who had completed hundreds of transactions of what appeared to be actual vaccines.

One of the vaccine advertisements Kaspersky researchers found stated that it wasn't selling vaccines but instead was accepting donations in exchange for doses. "Your donations will help to save more lives so please show your generosity," read the offer, which instructed donors to send $81 in bitcoin per requested dose upfront, along with a name, address and any known diseases or medical conditions to get a shipment of vaccine. It also stated supplies were limited so "we can save more lives as quickly as possible."

Advertisements from sellers offering COVID-19 doses are growing on the dark web. Courtesy of Kaspersky

Lev Kubiak, chief security officer at Pfizer, told CBS MoneyWatch the pharmaceutical company has found some instances of scammers counterfeiting the company's packaging, but no actual doses for sale. 

"Pfizer proactively monitors the internet including the dark web, and coordinates with law enforcement," Kubiak said. "We haven't seen any real doses sold in the illicit marketplace." 

Kubiak said Pfizer has been closely tracking where its vaccines are going. "In the U.S., there is no charge to be vaccinated, and the only vaccine that is being sold in the U.S. is to government agencies," Kubiak said. "People need to be very careful. As far as we can tell there has be no leakage of doses [outside of legitimate vaccination channels]."

Spokespeople for vaccine makers Moderna and AstraZenca did not return requests for comment.

The problem of whether some vaccines are being sold on the dark web — and whether people are being ripped off — has been growing. The dark web is the general term used for webpages that are coded so they can't be found by Google or other search engines and require the use of an "anonymizing" browser. Often the webpages are also encrypted. 

Shedding light on the dark web 06:33

An academic study published in January found vaccine offers began popping up on the dark web as early as March 2020. Those offers were almost certainly fake.

Last month, Check Point told CBS Chicago the number of vaccine ads on the dark web had grown rapidly over the previous six weeks. But when researchers from that cybersecurity firm tried to buy vaccines, the sellers disappeared before the researchers could get any doses.

"Our expectations were low, and, of course, they weren't met," Mark Ostrowski, head of engineering for Check Point, told CBS Chicago.

Kaspersky's Galov said there are some specialized markets on the dark web that are invitation-only and claim to sell vaccines. But vaccines are also on sale at some of the larger dark web marketplaces. Galov said Kaspersky decided against disclosing the names of those marketplaces in its study because it didn't want to encourage individuals to attempt to acquire vaccines on their own. 

Also for sale: phony vaccine cards and test results

"It's more tricky than going to Amazon," Galov said. "But it is not something that is so hard that only a specialized engineer can figure it out." 

Galov said he's seen no evidence of regulators trying to crack down on those on the dark web claiming to sell vaccines. 

Also for sale are phony vaccination cards and forged documents that claim a person has had a negative COVID-19 test. Dubious treatments for the disease are being touted as well, according to the study.

In some instances, sellers claimed they had created special shipping containers to send doses of Pfizer's vaccine — which must be kept at temperatures well below zero in order to remain effective.

"Sellers are trying to prove [the doses] are not fake," said Galov. "We think some of them are indeed real."

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