In December of 2020, the US FDA approved the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19. Within 24 hours, one of the largest global vaccination campaigns in history kicked off, with countries around the world rushing to begin the end of the pandemic.
Unfortunately, supply chains haven’t been able to keep up, and poorly designed vaccination programs have resulted in long delays. And, of course, each country has prioritized certain groups of individuals for vaccination.
What’s a desperate dose-seeker to do? And what options are open to those looking to profit from the chaos? They turn to the black market.
Vaccines for sale underground
You can find just about anything in dark web marketplaces. Looking for a premium porn site account? You can find one for as little as 50 cents. An “ID pack” containing full name, SSN, DOB, and phone numbers goes for about $10.
Not surprisingly, since the pandemic began, a new market has opened up: selling all things related to COVID. That includes protective gear and, of course, vaccines.
Searching 15 marketplaces, Kaspersky experts found advertisements for three major COVID vaccines: Pfizer/BioNTech, AstraZeneca, and Moderna. They also found some advertisements for unverified vaccines.
Prices per dose range from $250 to $1,200, averaging around $500. Further analysis showed that pricing had increased significantly following publication of Moderna’s and Pfizer’s effectiveness, as did the number of advertisements. Sellers primarily come from France, Germany, the UK, and the USA, and communications use encrypted messaging apps such as Wickr and Telegram.
Sellers predominantly request payments in the form of bitcoin, with rare exceptions accepting other cryptocurrency. That makes the payments harder to track and protects the sellers’ anonymity.
Many of the sellers Kaspersky researchers found had conducted 100 to 500 such transactions.
Scammers or the real deal?
Of course, when you go digging for products being sold illegally, you always run the risk of wasting your money on a product that will never materialize, and vaccine doses on the dark web are no exception to the rule. However, just how many vaccine sellers are distributing real medicine is unclear.
We did find positive reviews on some of the posts, suggesting that at least some users are receiving doses. Are those reviews real? Your guess is as good as ours.
Medical institutions, pharmacies, and hospitals around the world often end the day with leftover vaccine doses. It’s not inconceivable that someone working at these facilities could pocket the extra doses and connect with dark web intermediaries to sell them.
At the same time, a little bottle from a shady dealer on some anonymous forum in a dark corner of the Web can contain just about anything — from a harmless saline solution to something really dangerous.
That said, it’s important to note that even if what’s being sold is the real deal, the dose may not be effective by the time it arrives.
One of the current vaccination campaign’s major challenges is the medicine’s storage requirements. For example, vaccine doses from Pfizer and BioNTech must be kept at -70 degrees Celsius — much colder than your average freezer or ice pack. That means successfully transporting this vaccine requires a deep-freeze delivery chain. Once the vaccine thaws, it can survive for only five days. Pfizer has developed a box with dry ice packs and a GPS tracker to transport doses, but it’s hard to come by.
The Moderna vaccine is slightly easier to transport, needing -20 degrees Celsius storage, and AstraZeneca’s can be stored at normal refrigerator temperatures. However, maintaining even that temperature throughout the delivery chain is far from simple, and buyers have no way of knowing the vaccine was stored appropriately, or when it was thawed.
No rush for vaccination, just get the certificate
People unwilling to fork over several hundred dollars to purchase a vaccine dose may go for a far cheaper scheme: buying fake vaccination certificates. European countries are the primary source for these certificates, which help ease lockdown measures for certain individuals and facilitate international travel. A European vaccination record card costs about $20–$25.
Other countries require people to present proof they have no COVID infection before they may carry out certain activities, such as going to work in an office or making a doctor’s appointment. Scammers have been taking advantage of that fact as well. For example, in Russia, dark web users can buy a forged certificate asserting they do not have COVID. The certificate doesn’t come cheap, costing somewhere between 3,500 and 5,000 rubles ($50–$70).
To buy or not to buy?
Of course, darknet shopping is risky business, and it’s clear from the past year that scammers have been all too eager to profit off the current crisis. That means no one can be at all confident they will actually receive anything after transferring bitcoins, let alone a real vaccine dose that was stored properly and is safe to take.
The bottom line? Wait for your turn to receive a real vaccine the right way.