Americans recently began getting doses of the third Covid-19 to receive approval for emergency use. Today, well over 50-million people in the U.S. have been vaccinated - at least officially that's the number. Lisa Fletcher reports on a surprising development: an online black market for coronavirus vaccines.
The government hopes the third approved Covid vaccine now getting to Americans will be a game changer. Made by Johnson and Johnson, it doesn’t need special refrigeration and it works with just a single shot. But like any in-demand product, there’s already a dark side.
Chris Rouland: This is a global thing that everyone's freaking out about and a lot of people will bend or break rules to get those shots. And along with that, they're willing to pay money. I'm sure a lot of people in United States would pay $500 bucks if they know they could get to the front of the line and get a Covid shot.
Developing and distributing the vaccines so quickly has made tracking the millions of doses difficult. For fraudsters and criminals - it's a goldmine.
Chris Rouland is 25-year veteran of the information security industry. He noticed the first online ads for Covid vaccines appearing as early as April 2020, well before any vaccine was developed.
Rouland: This was a dark web posting from April 6, 2020, when there was no vaccine, "Come and get your new Israeli vaccine." Clearly, today we know this is fraudulent, however, a reader in April 2020, might've thought, "Hey, well, there's some special vaccine. I'm going to buy this thing." This is obviously bogus.
The dark web has long been a marketplace for illegal transactions, from stolen personal information to weapons and drugs.
Rouland: We've got the one-at-a-timers and these are individuals trying to procure their own vaccine. We've seen the prices actually go up, I think January to now, from $250 a dose to $750 a dose on the dark web. Keep in mind, no one has ever received one.
Rouland: No. People buy them and then the stores close or the marketplace close.
Lisa: So, it's just a scam.
Rouland: It's a scam. I'm not aware of anyone receiving, I'm aware of people attempting to procure them and paying for them, but they never receive them.
Lisa: Is there something going on that's indicating to you that there's more going on than just this scam activity?
Rouland: Yes. We've begun to see orders in the 10,000 to 20,000 dose range.
Lisa: What does that tell you?
Rouland: It tells me that that coolers are falling off of trucks and that's probably legitimate. Legitimate in that, it's actually a real vaccine that's been stolen, because people can't get away with scamming people for 30 grand on the dark web.
Lisa: There's a real expectation when you're making a big purchase on the dark web that you're getting the real deal?
Rouland: You're getting the real deal and they're going to be repercussions if you don't, because people who spend money like that on the dark web are probably not nice people.
In January, concern about missing doses rose, with headlines proclaiming 20 million shots unaccounted for. The Biden administration has said it inherited a mess from the Trump team, and while they declined to respond to Full Measure’s questions about missing vaccines, they have said publicly they believe much of problem is that between the states and federal government, there hasn’t been adequate tracking of shipments and vaccines given.
Lisa: You're seeing shipments of 20,000 or 30,000 doses online right now, how critical is it for the U.S. to get control of its supply chain?
Rouland: Well, I don't think it's possible. I think, this train is moving too fast. I think they're going to assume breakage. Retailers assume some degree of breakage. I'm sure a lot of opioids fall off trucks, this is not much different other than, people are probably more desperate for this than they're for opioids, in some cases.
Lisa: Can you put a price tag on what's happening now in terms of the Covid vaccines being sold online and what you think it could escalate to?
Rouland: If you're getting 10,000 doses with three a piece, and you can sell them for $500 apiece, what's that? 1,500,000 off of a box, that has zero cost of goods sold. I mean, a lot of people will take that risk for that kind of money.
Rouland says from what he sees, the roll out of new vaccines, like that from Johnson and Johnson this week, just means there’ll be more opportunity for theft and fraud.
For Full Measure, I’m Lisa Fletcher in Atlanta, Georgia.