The crooks flooded Facebook and other social media platforms with Covid-19 Scams for almost as long as the the disease has a name. Now as desperation rises to access a limited vaccine supply, Internet charlatans have multiplied in kind, offering shipments of doses in Facebook groups and Telegram cats.
According to a new report from the Digital Citizens Alliance and the Safer Web Coalition nonprofit for Internet Safety, researchers had no trouble finding vendors with claims for vaccines ready to ship. The offers ranged from Facebook page operators wanting to ship the Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine – which is not permitted for use in the United States – from China, to apparent fraudsters on Telegram claiming to have access to vaccines from Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca. Researchers say they searched but found no comparable activity on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. While similar scams had previously increased on the dark web, their presence on mainstream social media with billions of users exposes a much larger population to potential harm.
“What you are seeing is that these questionable masks, PPE, treatments, tests are being sold on these Facebook group pages which are in effect acting as marketplaces for the sale and purchase of questionable Covid-19 products,” says Eric Feinberg, vice president of content moderation at CSW. “In early January, I started noticing on these pages that posts about what I would call dodgy Facebook accounts were popping up, pushing these dodgy vaccines out of China.
Researchers observed several posts in coronavirus-related Facebook groups that referred to Covid-19 vaccines without explicitly offering them for sale. However, many of these posts included international phone numbers for more information. A page identifying itself as Hongyu Medical made contact even easier by including a Facebook Messenger link in a January 12 post. The researchers reached out and asked if Hongyu was selling the vaccine. The answer was yes. Hongyu’s representative sent a photo of a box of Sinovac vaccine as proof.
The conversation was eventually transmitted via email, where the representative provided documentation on the effectiveness of the vaccine. At one point, the seller searched on LinkedIn for the researcher, whose profile clearly indicates that he lives in the United States. The deal only broke down when the researcher admitted he had no previous experience importing drugs. “You’d better contact someone who has already imported medical products, or else we send them to you, the package would be held up by your custom and you would incur a heavy penalty,” the vaccine vendor wrote.
The Hongyu Medical page is no longer live on Facebook. Neither did Zhejiang Hongwan Biotech, another entity that openly announced that the Sinovac vaccine was “coming soon and coming soon” in a January 11 article. It is not known how widespread the problem has been, but Feinberg says he has seen several vendors beyond those mentioned in the report. “We have removed the pages flagged in this report because we prohibit anyone from selling Covid-19 vaccines on our platform and we are still working to stop efforts to circumvent our rules,” said a spokesperson for Facebook in a statement. “We have stepped up our efforts to eliminate more misinformation about vaccines, including false claims about the Covid-19 vaccine.”
But Feinberg says those efforts haven’t escalated enough. “The only time they own it is when it’s pointed out, when someone like us takes the time, money and research to do it,” he says. He cites Facebook groups, in particular, as fertile ground for this type of activity, and the platform’s recommendation engine as an aggravating factor.
Researchers were unable to confirm whether Hongyu Medical had a legitimate vaccine supply or was considering shipping a counterfeit vaccine. Both scenarios would be alarming in their own way. But what they found on Telegram much more clearly appears to be a complete scam.