Scammers have flooded Facebook and other social media platforms with Covid-19 scams for almost as long as the disease has had a name. Now, as desperation builds for access to a limited vaccine supply, internet charlatans have escalated in kind, offering shipments of doses in Facebook groups and Telegram chats.
According to a new report from internet safety nonprofits Digital Citizens Alliance and the Coalition for a Safer Web, researchers had no trouble finding vendors with claims of vaccines ready to ship. The offers ranged from Facebook page operators willing to ship Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine—which is not authorized for use in the United States—from China, to apparent scammers on Telegram claiming to have access to Moderna, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca’s vaccines. The researchers say they looked for but did not find comparable activity on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. While similar scams had previously surged on the dark web, their presence on mainstream social networks with billions of users exposes a much wider population to potential harm.
“What you find is that these questionable masks, PPE, treatments, tests are being sold on these Facebook group pages that actually act as marketplaces for the sale and buying of questionable Covid-19 products,” says Eric Feinberg, vice president for content moderation at CSW. “Early in January I started noticing on these pages that posts by what I would call questionable Facebook accounts were appearing, pushing these questionable vaccines from China.”
The researchers observed several posts in coronavirus-related Facebook groups that referenced Covid-19 vaccines without explicitly offering them for sale. Many of those posts did, however, include 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 post on January 12. The researchers reached out and asked if Hongyu was selling the vaccine. The answer was yes. The Hongyu representative sent a picture of a Sinovac vaccine box as proof.
The conversation eventually moved to email, where the rep provided documentation about the vaccine’s efficacy. At one point, the seller searched on LinkedIn for the researcher, whose profile clearly states that they live in the United States. The deal only collapsed when the researcher conceded that they had no prior experience importing drugs. “You’d better contact with someone who imported medical products before, or though we send to you, the package would be held by your custom, and you will face high penalty,” the vaccine peddler wrote.
The Hongyu Medical page is no longer up on Facebook. Nor is Zhejiang Hongwan Biotech, another entity that openly advertised that the Sinovac vaccine was “coming soon and available soon” in a January 11 post. It’s unclear how widespread the problem has been, but Feinberg says he saw multiple vendors beyond those mentioned in the report. “We removed the Pages flagged in this report because we prohibit anyone from selling Covid-19 vaccines on our platform and are always working to stop efforts to circumvent our rules,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “We have expanded our efforts to remove more vaccine misinformation, including false claims about the Covid-19 vaccine.”
But Feinberg says those efforts have not ramped up nearly enough. “The only time they do take ownership is when it’s reported, when someone like us takes the time and money and research to do this,” he says. He points to Facebook groups, in particular, as a breeding ground for this sort of activity, and the platform’s recommendation engine as compounding factor.
The researchers were unable to confirm whether Hongyu Medical had a supply of legitimate vaccine or planned to ship a counterfeit. Either scenario would be alarming in its own way. But what they found on Telegram seems much more clearly to have been pure scam.