Spinning a dark web of lies

News April 21, 2021

The article “Spinning a dark web of lies” was published by ANGELIN YEOH, ASHLEY TANG and CLARISSA CHUNG at The Star.

PETALING JAYA: With high demand for Covid-19 vaccines worldwide, the dark web has become home to sinister syndicates peddling fake vaccines that could endanger lives.

Scammers are upping their techniques and selling fake vaccines using genuine photos that they share online to trick potential victims.

Cybersecurity firm LGMS founder Fong Choong Fook said he has spotted dark web marketplaces offering “early access” to Covid-19 vaccines, making false claims that they are safe and effective.

“Buyers will have to pay a deposit to secure early access and I’ve seen them being listed for US$200 (RM825).

“Sales of these so-called vaccines are not governed by any of the authorities and buyers are risking financial losses and, in extreme cases, even their health, ” he said.

As most financial transactions on dark web marketplaces are conducted through cryptocurrencies, Fong said it is not easy to determine the identity of sellers or buyers. “It’s best to avoid such offers at all costs, ” he added.

He explained that some people may be motivated by such offers as they are desperate to get vaccinated ahead of others.

Previously, Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said there were online ads of the “Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine” being sold at RM63.88.

He said the ministry’s Pharmacy Enforcement Division is working with local authorities and Interpol to monitor these online ads.

He also reminded the people that the vaccines can only be supplied to the government and authorised parties, cautioning them not to fall for online ads of fake vaccines.

Digital Forensics Research Society (DFRS) president Dr Aswami Fadillah Mohd Ariffin said its research revealed that an increasing number of users are expressing an interest in buying vaccines from the dark web.

“Some sellers are selling vaccines for up to US$300 (RM1,240) per piece and it could cost more to complete the dosage, ” he said, adding that they use images of genuine vaccine vials and social media photos of people who had taken their shots to make their offers more convincing.

He warned that fake vaccines could contain unknown substances that may be harmful if administered into the body.

“Or they are more likely to end up spending money on something that they will never receive, ” he added.

To stop scammers from harvesting information from social media, he stressed the need for medical and personal information to be treated as private and confidential.

According to DFRS, a think tank made up of cyber and financial crime professionals as well as industry influencers, such information is in demand and cybercriminals could use it to harass or damage a person’s reputation.

Fong agreed, saying: “Anything private should be treated with discretion. Although our vaccination dates may not seem important, fraudsters can use the info to trick victims into thinking they are representing government officials.

“For example, a scammer could call up potential victims saying they may need additional shots due to a medical anomaly and trick them into paying more.”

Yeo Siang Tiong, Kaspersky general manager for South-East Asia, emphasised the need to be careful when posting information online, as the “Internet doesn’t have a delete key.”

“Think before you click. Any comment or image you post online may stay online forever because removing the original does not remove copies made by others.

“There is no way for you to take back a remark or in this case, your vaccine appointment and location, ” he said.

While it is understandable that people post information online because they are excited, Yeo said it is also important to remember that such information can be used by scammers to track their whereabouts.

“We encourage everyone to think twice – or thrice – before posting anything and to remember that some things are best kept private, ” he said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) had also previously issued an alert over falsified Covid-19 vaccines in Mexico in February, with the fake vaccines even having been administered to some patients outside authorised vaccination programmes.

“Falsified Covid-19 vaccines pose a serious risk to global public health and place an additional burden on vulnerable populations and health systems. It is important to identify and remove these from circulation, ” it said.

In March, Interpol reported that South African authorities had seized thousands of doses of vaccines and Chinese police had seized 3,000 fake vaccines after a raid on manufacturing premises.

The global police agency also said it is receiving additional reports of fake vaccine distribution and scam attempts targeting health bodies, such as nursing homes.

Last December, The Star reported on vendors peddling “Covid-19 vaccines” on dark web forums and chatrooms, with cybersecurity and health experts warning people not to register their interest and details to “purchase” these vaccines.

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