Coronavirus: Ventilators, PPE, fake Covid-19 vaccines for sale on dark web

More than 600 Covid-19-related medical products, supplies and fake vaccines have been found for sale on the dark web. 

The Cybercrime Observatory, from the Australian National University, uncovered 645 listings for 222 unique supplies on the platform in April.

This included respirators, testing kits, personal protective equipment. 

“We found unsafe vaccines, repurposed antivirals – which are in very short supply – and quite a lot of bulk PPE on the dark web,” said the investigation’s Professor Rod Broadhurst.

There are no Covid-19 vaccines that have completed testing on humans.

Most vendors were located in the United States, Europe, and the United Kingdom. However, there was one vendor shipping from New Zealand.

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Thursday there were no ongoing reports of such illegal online activity in New Zealand.

“In the monitoring that I receive, I’m not getting any of that data on an ongoing basis,” she said at a daily press conference. 

NetSafe hadn’t received any reports of people concerned about trades on the dark web, its chief executive, Martin Cocker, said. But the people who visited the dark web were well aware of the risks it posed. 

Cocker said hearing of such items for sale during the pandemic – including a vaccine that hadn’t yet been created – wasn’t a shock. 

There are no Covid-19 vaccines that have completed testing on humans.

Ted S. Warren/AP

There are no Covid-19 vaccines that have completed testing on humans.

“Nothing’s a shock when you talk about the dark web.”

Most of NetSafe’s dealings with the dark web involved tracking the trade of illegal products and images.

The investigation by the university, which was commissioned by the Australian Institute of Criminology, found more than 100 vendors of ‘vaccines’.

Such products accounted for almost 10 per cent of the Covid-19 listings and were among the most expensive items for sale. The most expensive fake vaccine was on sale for A$24,598 (NZ$26,144) from the US.

The inclusion of Covid-19 ‘vaccines’ in the illegal marketplace was comical for vaccinologist Dr Helen Petousis-Harris.

“First of all, there are no Covid vaccines that have completed human trials. Zero, zip nada,” she said.

“Anything being sold as a vaccine on the dark net is not something that you want to take, consume, inject, inhale.”

There was a likelihood the product for sale was disinfectant or even sugar. 

Broadhurst thought the items could be diverted from animal or human trials or even sourced from recovered patients. 

Netsafe chief executive Martin Cocker said you can't just stumble upon the dark web, but there are still Covid-19-related scams on the regular World Wide Web.

Monique Ford/Stuff

Netsafe chief executive Martin Cocker said you can’t just stumble upon the dark web, but there are still Covid-19-related scams on the regular World Wide Web.

“Apart from likely fraud, details about the origin or composition of vaccines were sparse,” he said.

“Fake vaccines could assist in the spread of the virus because users may behave as if they are immune, but nevertheless become exposed to the coronavirus.”

To add to this, any legitimate vaccine that was available would be at no cost to Kiwis, Pertousis-Harris explained.

Accidentally purchasing such items wasn’t expected to be an issue for average internet users. The dark web is an encrypted part of the net separate to the usual World Wide Web visited by the public.

“The thing is, the dark web, it sounds like a mysterious, cave that exists, [that] you accidentally fall [into] from the World Wide Web, but that’s not the case,” Cocker said.

“It’s essentially another way of accessing the internet but it just doesn’t have the same rules and technologies of the web.

“The average person’s not [going to] find themselves on the dark web.”

Broadhurst said the sale of compromised medical items and fake vaccines posed a “real risk to the health and safety of the public and needs to be dealt with swiftly”.

Covid-19-related scams weren’t solely an issue on the dark web, however. There were enough visible scams on the regular web, Cocker said.

Counterfeit PPE that was available online was cause for concern in New Zealand and around the world. 

“People have to be wary on both.”

Investigators at customs said they were alert to these kinds of products at the border

“We remain alert to international trends relating to the supply of counterfeit or defective personal protective equipment including masks, and are monitoring this closely,” Bruce Berry, investigations manager at Customs, earlier told Stuff.

“While there is a high demand for items such as N95 masks, the public is urged to be aware of opportunists, in New Zealand or overseas, who may be trying to sell products online under false pretence to make money.” 

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