Ahead of the roll out of South Africa’s mass COVID-19 vaccination programme, security experts have warned of a thriving black market for vaccine certificates, fake negative COVID test results and even vaccines on the Dark Web.
A report in the Saturday Star notes cyber threat analysis firm Check Point Research (CPR) said forged COVID-19 test results and fake “vaccine passport” certificates were being offered across chat rooms on the Dark Web from between R350 to R3,500 to people seeking to leave the country by air or land.
Meanwhile, analysts warn that the unequal global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines around the world could spur the trade in fake doses in Africa, a hotspot for counterfeit medicines. “Already Africa has a problem with counterfeit medicines. The lack of local production and weak enforcement have for years allowed products to enter countries, such as fake medication for malaria in West Africa,” said Richard Chelin, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.
A report on the allAfrica site notes that he said that with wealthy nations hoarding vaccines, the situation is likely to deteriorate. “The consequence of this vaccine grabbing is that it creates opportunity for criminal networks. Everyone wants the vaccine and people will panic and buy whatever is out there,” he added.
The recent seizure of thousands of fake-19 vaccines in South Africa led to the identification of a network manufacturing counterfeit COVID-19 vaccines in Asia. Chinese police raided the plant, making about 80 arrests and recovering more than 3,000 fake doses.
The report says the Kenyan government last week reversed a decision to allow private healthcare firms to import vaccine, saying such shipments could be counterfeit. The WHO estimates that 42% of the world's reported cases of fake pharmaceuticals were found in Africa between 2013 and 2017.
The Saturday Star report says that advertisements for COVID-19 vaccines Astrazeneca, Sputnik, Sinopharm and Johnson & Johnson have spiked by more than 300% in the past three months, with prices ranging between R7,000 and R14,500 per dose, according to CPR.
Pankaj Bhula, Check Point’s EMEA regional director in Africa, said the global demand for fake COVID-19 test results and vaccine passports, as well as vaccines, had sky-rocketed. The sellers are mostly based in the US as well as Spain, Germany, France and Russia, but their wares, including some untested and still unapproved items, are available to South Africans who can pay for them.
“A negative COVID-19 test result or a vaccination certificate is the golden key that will unlock restrictions and enable people to move and mingle with greater freedom,” Bhula said. “And this creates an opportunity for criminals and scammers to exploit those people who are willing to risk using fake documents to achieve that freedom.”
Danny Myburgh, MD of Cyanre, a South African digital forensics laboratory, said he was aware of the trade in fake COVID-19 documents. “I don’t think the demand is as big in South Africa currently, but it might increase with potential future bans,’ said Myburgh, who previously commanded the SAPS’ national computer crime investigation unit.
And, notes the Saturday Star report, Cape Town-based cyber security expert Anna Collard said she wasn’t surprised by fast-growing black market for COVID-19 related items. “As soon as there is an event of public interest, organised crime and cyber criminals prey on people’s fears and emotions to make a quick buck,” said Collard.
“Vaccination themed scams are just the latest trends”.
She said it was easy for individuals to buy items on the Dark Web, “but ‘purchase’ doesn’t necessarily mean receiving anything in return”. Instead, she said, unwitting buyers were more likely to have their personal information and identity exploited.