The fear and panic caused by Covid-19 across the globe has provided online criminals with an avenue to profit. Potential ‘cures’ and ‘vaccines’ are being sold on the dark web for thousands of dollars.
A research study into activity on the dark web, conducted by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) report found hundreds of purported coronavirus vaccines, personal protective gear (PPE) and antiviral drugs for sale, with more than 224 listings from 110 vendors in China, the US and Australia.
PPE is by far the most common item for sale, often in bulk, including surgical masks, protective gowns and sanitisers, but diagnostic equipment, rapid testing gear and thermoscanners are also being sold for exorbitant prices.
It would seem thought that the global pandemic is even affecting criminal activity – researchers say that while there’s no cap to what people will pay in desperate times, in some cases these outrageous prices reflect the fact that some items are in short supply and there are currently issues with postal services getting parcels around the world.
The ANU team also found a small listing for vaccines, particularly from China or specifically Wuhan – some which claim to be the blood of a recovered coronavirus patient. Many of the cures start at around $500, but some are selling for as much as $25,000.
Around a third of the listings were for drugs considered to be suitable as a treatment for coronavirus, including chloroquine and hydroxycloroquine, as touted by US President Donald Trump – there was a surge in interest in the drug when he endorsed it. There are also listings for anti-coronavirus UV lamps, hot chilli pastes and alcohol solutions – none of which are known to have any actual effect on the virus.
There has also been a spike in people using disinfectants improperly after he dangerously suggested at a news briefing last week that ingesting disinfectants or taking in sunlight could serve as a coronavirus treatment. After government agencies and health lines were inundated with inquiries, Trump took no responsibility for his comments, or their impact on a large number of Americans who believed his ill-considered words.
While profiteering is rife on the dark web, some market players are threatening to expose those who were trying to scam people during the pandemic. Heavy encryption means that it is not easy to trace either sellers or buyers.
A few months ago the dark web was off loading bulk toilet paper supplies.
At the time, so were local community social media pages and sites like Gumtree with people hoping to make a quick profit out of other people’s misery. There were reports of 24-packs of toilet paper selling regularly for more than $100 online.
In response, the Australian Federal Police (AFP), Australia Border Force (ABF) as well as State police forces teamed up to catch hoarders of supermarket goods who are selling them on the black market.
Profiteering during hard times is nothing new. And while purchasing and selling products with a hefty profit margin, might be immoral, in itself, it is not illegal.
It becomes illegal if the products are illegal, or if the products are not illegal but stolen or illegally purchased, or sold through an unregistered business and / or without paying taxes. The internet and social media have made it possible for the black market to thrive.
Experts suggest that this type of criminal activity could escalate in the coming months as the world starts to feel the pinch of the impact of coronavirus. Most countries have been put into lockdown to avoid the ‘spread’ of the virus, effectively ‘sedating’ economies which will take some time to bounce back.
Job losses, financial strain, becoming homeless, can often be precursors for people turning to theft and other criminal activity as a way to survive.