CHICAGO — While public health officials continue to wrestle with a global pandemic, crooks have been using the crisis as an opportunity to make a profit. Vendors are peddling fake vaccine cards on the dark web and consumers are ordering purported therapeutic drugs from dubious international sources.
Tens of millions of packages come through nine international mailing facilities around the United States annually. It’s a 24-hour operation.
Each year, Customs and Border Protection officers inspect and screen tens of million parcels to ensure they comply with state and federal law.
And since the beginning of the pandemic, they’ve been busy.
“We were seizing unapproved medications coming from China that were manufactured in clandestine labs,” said Christopher Macko, a supervisory officer with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
He says his officers have been intercepting everything from fake PPE and COVID-19 testing kits to drugs and phony vaccine cards.
“We were seeing hundreds and thousands of packages coming from unknown lands, basically to the consumer, in the United States,” he said.
Between January of last year and the end of July this year, the agency seized nearly 40 million counterfeit face masks, 187,000 FDA-prohibited COVID-19 test kits, and approximately 40,000 tablets of unapproved chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine.
“This is an open market, an unregulated market, also an illegal market,” said Ryan Linder, an emerging threats expert with Check Point Research.
They’ve been monitoring activity associated with pandemic-related fraud, cyber threats, and illegal commerce—some of it on the dark web.
“We must increase vaccination among the unvaccinated with new vaccination requirements,” said President Biden on Sept. 9.
Linder says the day after President Biden announced an emergency vaccine mandate for American workers, online activity spiked.
“The cost of these of these illegal cards on these platforms doubled overnight,” said Linder. “But more disturbingly, the number of sellers increased by about ten times.”
Earlier this month, Customs and Border Patrol seized two consignments destined for Texas that contained counterfeit vaccination cards from China. They also found shipments from China and Mexico headed to Atlanta, St. Louis and Minnesota that contained the controversial drugs ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.
Linder warns that purchasing these kinds of items not only poses a risk to public health but to your personal information.
“You have no idea where that personal information ends up, so you may get a fake vaccine card. Your data might be sold on the dark web at great profit to these bad actors,” he said.
As the public remains sharply divided over vaccine mandates and controversial therapeutics, Linder says as long as people are willing to buy, the illegal imports won’t disappear.
“They want to have what they want to enjoy their lives and make money and earn a living, but they don't want a vaccine,” he said. “That population, I think, will be fixed for a very long time and therefore there will be a demand that's increasing with each one of these mandates.”
The simple warning to contraband shoppers he says is buyer beware.