Countries all over the world are racing to achieve so-called herd immunity against COVID-19 by vaccinating their populations. From the initial lockdown to the cancellation of events and the prohibition of business travel, to the reopening of restaurants, and relaxation of COVID restrictions on outdoor gatherings, the vaccine rollout has played a critical role in staving off another wave of infections and restoring some degree of normalcy. However, a new and troubling phenomenon is that consumers are buying COVID-19 vaccines on the black market due to the increased demand around the world. As a result, illegal COVID-19 vaccines and vaccination records are in high demand on darknet marketplaces.
The impact on society is that the proliferation of fraudulent test results and counterfeit COVID-19 vaccine records pose a serious threat to public health and spur the underground economy. Individuals undoubtedly long to return to their pre-pandemic routines and the freedom of travel and behavior denied them over the last year. However, the purchase of false COVID-19 test certifications or vaccination cards to board aircraft, attend an event or enter a country endangers themselves, even if they are asymptomatic. It also threatens the lives of other people in their own communities and around the world. Aside from the collective damage to global health, darknet marketplace transactions encourage the supply of illicit goods and services. The underground economy cycle continues as demand creates inventory, which in turn creates supply. In addition to selling COVID-19 vaccines, vaccination cards, and fake test results, cybercriminals can also benefit by reselling the names, dates of birth, home addresses, contact details, and other personally indefinable information of their customers.
Racing Toward a Fully Vaccinated Society Along with a Growing Underground Vaccine Market
As we commemorate the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, at least 184 countries and territories worldwide have started their vaccination rollouts. The United States is vaccinating Americans at an unprecedented rate. As of May 2021, more than 105 million Americans had been fully vaccinated. The growing demand has made COVID-19 vaccines the new “liquid gold” in the pandemic era.
However, following vaccination success, COVID-19 related cybercrime has increased. COVID-19 vaccines are currently available on at least a dozen darknet marketplaces. Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines (and we can only speculate as to whether they are genuine or a form of liquid “fool’s gold”) can be purchased for as little as $500 per dose from top-selling vendors. These sellers use various channels, such as Wickr, Telegram, WhatsApp and Gmail, for advertising and communications. Darknet listings associated with alleged Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines are selling for $600 to $2,500. Prospective buyers can receive the product within 2 to 10 days. Some of these supposed COVID-19 vaccines are imported from the United States, while others are packed in the United Kingdom and shipped to every country in the world, according to the underground advertisement.
Figure 1: Dark web marketplace offering COVID-19 vaccines
Figure 2: Dark web marketplace offering COVID-19 vaccines
A vendor sells 10 doses of what they claim to be Moderna COVID-29 vaccines for $2,000. According to the advertisement, the product is available to ship to the United Kingdom and worldwide.
Figure 3: Dark web marketplace offering COVID-19 vaccines
Besides what are claimed to be COVID-19 vaccines, cybercriminals offer antibody home test kits for $152 (again, we do not know whether they are genuine or not). According to the advertisement, there are various shipping options available. It costs $41 for ‘stealth’ shipping to the United States, $10.38 to ship to the United Kingdom, and $20 to mail the vaccines internationally.
Figure 4: Dark web marketplace offering COVID-19 test kits
Proof of Vaccination in the Underground Market
On the darknet marketplaces, the sales of counterfeit COVID-19 test results and vaccination certificates began to outnumber the COVID vaccine offerings in mid-April. This shift is most likely because COVID-19 vaccines are now readily available for those who want them. People can buy and show these certificates without being vaccinated. A growing number of colleges will require students to have received a COVID-19 vaccine before returning to in-person classes by this fall. Soon, COVID-19 vaccination proof is likely to become a requirement of some type of “passport” to board a plane or enter major events and venues.
The growing demand for proof of vaccination is driving an illicit economy for fake vaccination and test certificates. Opportunistic cybercriminals capitalize on public interest in obtaining a COVID-19 immunity passport, particularly for those who oppose COVID-19 vaccines or test positive for COVID-19 but want to return to school or work, resume travel or attend a public event. Counterfeit negative COVID-19 test results and COVID-19 vaccination cards are available for sale at various darknet marketplaces. Fake CDC-issued vaccination cards are available for $50. One vendor offers counterfeit German COVID-19 certificates for $23.35. Vaccination cards with customized information, such as “verified” batch or lot numbers for particular dates and “valid” medical and hospital information, are also available for purchase.
One darknet marketplace vendor offers to sell a digital copy of the COVID-19 vaccination card with detailed printing instructions for $50.
Figure 5: Dark web marketplace offering COVID-19 vaccination cards
One vendor sells CDC vaccination cards for $1,200 and $1,500, as seen in the following screenshot. These cards, according to the advertisement, can be personalized with details such as the prospective buyer’s name and medical information.
Figure 6: Dark web marketplace offering COVID-19 vaccination cards
Other darknet marketplace vendors offer fake CDC-issued COVID-19 vaccination card packages for $1,200 to $2,500. The package contains a PDF file that buyers can type and print, as well as personalized vaccination cards with “real” lot numbers, according to the advertisement. Prospective buyers can pay $1,200 for blank cards or $1,500 for custom-made cards with valid batch numbers, medical and hospital details.
Figure 7: Dark web marketplace offering COVID-19 vaccination cards
One vendor offers counterfeit negative COVID-19 test results and vaccine passports to potential buyers.
Figure 8: Dark web marketplace offering negative COVID-19 test results and vaccination cards
A seller on another dark web market sells five counterfeit German COVID-19 certificates for $23.35. According to the advertisement below, the product is available for shipping to Germany and the rest of the world.
Figure 9: Dark web marketplace offering German COVID-19 vaccination certificates
The proliferation of fraudulent test results and counterfeit COVID-19 vaccine records on darknet marketplaces poses a significant threat to global health while fueling the underground economy. While an increasing number of countries begin to roll out COVID-19 vaccines and proof of vaccination, questionable COVID vaccines and fake proofs are emerging on the underground market. With the EU and other jurisdictions opening their borders to those who have received vaccinations, individuals will be tempted to obtain false vaccination documents in their drive to a return to pre-pandemic normalcy that includes summer travel and precious time with missed loved ones. Those who buy questionable COVID-19 vaccines or forged vaccination certificates risk their own lives and the lives of others. Apart from the harm to global health, making payments to darknet marketplaces promotes the growth of illegal products and services. The cycle of the underground economy continues as demand generates inventory, which generates supply. These are the unintended consequences of an effective global COVID vaccine rollout.