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INTERPOL Warns People About Counterfeit Coronavirus Vaccines

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So in a year when the distribution of vaccines is so important, the International Police Organization has a serious warning, also known as INTERPOL. They're cautioning people about the dangers of counterfeit vaccines. Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia from our daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money wanted to find out more about this, and so they took a trip into the dark web.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: The COVID crisis has created a whole universe of opportunity for criminals. Fear and scarcity and high demand are very powerful market forces.

CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: Chad Anderson has been watching these forces play out for months. He's a senior security researcher at DomainTools.

CHAD ANDERSON: We're a cyberthreat intelligence data company. So we scan the entire Internet as many times as we can every single day and give insights to customers based upon what we see.

GARCIA: And part of the whole Internet is the so-called dark web. That's the unregulated part of the web where a lot of illegal activity happens.

VANEK SMITH: Like, what is the dark web like?

ANDERSON: There is many things when people talk about the dark web. But most of the time, what people are referring to is these anonymous services and illegal forums or illegal marketplaces.

GARCIA: Illegal marketplaces where you can buy drugs or weapons or passports or COVID vaccines.

ANDERSON: So now we're starting to see some coronavirus vaccines. You know, I'm looking at maybe 200 different ads here.

VANEK SMITH: So can you read us some of the ads that you've found?

ANDERSON: Yeah. Let me pull one up I'm looking at here. So, you know, the ad says 10 COVID-19 vaccines. The price is 3,276 euros.

GARCIA: That's about 4,000 U.S. dollars - so about $400 per vaccine.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. And for the record, Chad does not think that these vaccines are legit. For one thing, the Pfizer vaccine requires a very intense cold storage chain. The vaccines have to be kept at negative 70 degrees Fahrenheit. And also, the COVID vaccine ads are mixed in with ads for all kinds of other things, and Chad says that tends to be a red flag.

ANDERSON: Since we're in the Cs, you scroll up, and there's cocaine. You know, scroll down, you've got your heroin and, you know, molly, meth - you name it. As well as - you know, this site has firearms.

GARCIA: Chad says the global COVID crisis has been a massive opportunity for cybercriminals. He says the online marketplaces are still a tiny part of it right now, and most of the criminal activity has involved ransomware.

VANEK SMITH: Chad says because lives are at stake and there's so much chaos and urgency right now, criminal organizations know that if they hack into the system of a hospital, they can demand and probably get a lot of money. Back in October, one hospital in New Jersey paid cybercriminals more than $650,000 after the criminals locked up their computer systems and threatened to publish all of their patient records.

GARCIA: Chad expects that these kinds of attacks will become more frequent in coming months because, after all, the payoff for those kinds of attacks are much bigger than a couple of thousand dollars for the COVID vaccines.

VANEK SMITH: Although Chad also expects the vaccine marketplace will continue to grow on the dark web. Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: Cardiff Garcia, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM SCHAUFERT'S "JOURNEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.