Coronavirus vaccine scammers are running wild on the internet — with some setting up fake drug company websites to cash in on the desperate demand for shots, federal authorities said Friday.
A bogus website claiming to belong the drugmaker Moderna — whose vaccine was greenlit by a Food and Drug Administration panel Thursday — was shut down Friday by the U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland, officials said.
Fraudsters set up the sham web domain, mordernatx.com, to steal personal information from customers and potentially send out spyware, according to a press release about the scheme.
It’s one of at least 500 cases — including 180 arrests — linked to illegal COVID-19 vaccines, back-alley test kits and counterfeit medications investigated by the feds in recent months, according to the New York Times.
Fearful consumers and a competitive market for the vaccine — considered “liquid gold” by criminals — have caused a perfect storm, authorities told the paper.
“If you could create a perfect environment for cyberfraud, this would be it,” said Matthew Swenson, the chief of cybercrimes for the multi-agency “Operation Stolen Promise,” which has seized more than $27 million from COVID-19 scammers.
“We take down 100 [fake websites] and they go buy 50 or 100 more. It makes it very difficult to stay ahead of the game,” he added.
Elderly and less-internet-savvy folks seeking to skip the line for a vaccine are more likely to be targeted by fraudsters, authorities said.
“You have an elderly percentage of the population that’s very concerned about getting the right products and vaccines and P.P.E., and they’re not as internet savvy so they’re more likely to fall victim to these schemes,” Swenson said.
The Moderna scheme was discovered earlier this month when a Department of Homeland Security agent based in Jacksonville, Fla noticed the phony website had listed the wrong number for the company. It had also misspelled the name Moderna in its web address, the paper reported.
Special agents on the operation — which includes the F.B.I., the Justice Department and Customs and Border Protection — are also scouring the dark web for scammers. But most of the schemes are unfolding on traditional-looking websites, officials said.
On Friday, a fake website claiming to belong to Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, which makes COVID-19 treatments, was also shut down by the U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland.
There’s no evidence that criminals are disrupting the supply chain of real vaccines with fake ones— but customs officers high alert at borders, authorities said.