Since December, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the use of the first COVID-19 vaccine, the FBI and other federal agencies issued warnings of scams that intended to exploit interest in the newly-released vaccine.
Interpol also followed suit, issuing an Orange Notice alerting law enforcement to "potential criminal activity in relation to the falsification, theft and illegal advertising of COVID-19 and flu vaccines."
What is the Dark Web?
The dark web became a breeding ground for these scams. For the uninitiated, the dark web is the underbelly of the internet that is not indexed by internet searches.
It is a hotbed for illegal activities and contains several anonymous marketplaces that facilitate the sale/purchase of illicit items and services including drugs, fake money, stolen data, porn, fake identity proofs, arms and ammunition, and contract killers, and so forth.
COVID-19 Vaccine Ads on the Dark Web
CBS News recently reported that over the last six weeks, the number of vaccine ads on the dark web has exploded with the vaccines being offered for three or four times the asking price.
Other news outlets have also cited a dark web market named Agartha that contains hundreds of ads for coronavirus vaccines. For instance, one ad, listed under "opiates," claimed to sell the Moderna vaccine for $800 a piece.
Another ad claimed to be able to ship multiple doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine in exchange for Bitcoin, a common form of cryptocurrency used to transact on the dark web.
As pointed out by fact-checking websites Snopes, although these listings claim to provide coronavirus vaccines for a price, these ads are "fake" ads that are preying on concerns about the far slower-than-promised rollout of vaccines to protect against the deadly virus that has claimed more than 470,000 lives in the United States alone.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines both require high level of refrigeration for transport. These vaccines must be temperature-controlled at negative 70 degrees Fahrenheit in order to remain effective for use with drugmakers equipping shipments with temperature trackers to ensure the cold chain.
According to Chad Anderson, a Senior Security Researcher at DomainTools, Agartha has a reputation for being a "scam market." "I've never thrown money into my user wallet on there, but I have heard from others that the moment you do it's immediately siphoned off to another wallet that I would assume is the wallet of those running the site," he noted.
The CBS News report also cited the work of cybersecurity company Check Point. The security firm attempted to purchase the vaccines from various dark web sellers via Bitcoin payment and a few days later received a notification that the vaccine had been shipped. However, a couple of days later, the vendor's account completely disappeared from the website and they never received any product in return, leading the company to conclude that none of the sellers they found actually had any vaccine to sell.
Although there are several ads for COVID-19 vaccines on notorious dark web markets, none of them appear to be legitimate.