In 2021, the COVID-19 vaccine is liquid gold. As governments begin to roll out inoculation programs, criminal groups are taking advantage of the anxious interim, offering a range of scams from reserved vaccination spots to counterfeit vaccines – practices that may have serious public health implications.
In early December, INTERPOL issued a global alert warning of criminal activity around the falsification, theft and illegal advertising of COVID-19 and flu vaccines – the latest opportunistic and predatory criminal behavior triggered by the pandemic.
And while Mexico seems to be the early epicenter for criminal activity surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines, similar practices are emerging in numerous countries, including Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Panama.
On January 8, Milenio reported that Mexico’s National Council of Private Security (Consejo Nacional de Seguridad Privada – CNSP) has confirmed the presence of laboratories set up by organized crime groups to create fake COVID-19 vaccines. The CNSP’s president, Raúl Sapién Santos, stated that such operations had been identified in Jalisco, Tamaulipas, Chihuahua, and Mexico City.
There are also concerns that organized crime groups, such as the Familia Michocana and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) will try to infiltrate the supply-chain and steal vaccines en route to local hospitals.
If an organized crime group were to succeed in stealing vaccines, they could distribute false vaccines under the guise of selling the stolen doses. Given the role Mexican cartels have played in providing pandemic assistance to local communities, citizens may trust the vaccines are authentic, creating a false sense of security that could lead to greater community spread.
On January 5, the Secretary of Health for Mexico's state of Quintana Roo issued an alert warning of imposture “vaccine brigades” going door-to-door to collect residents’ personal information. Posing as members of the state’s Secretary of Health, brigades are falsely registering residents to receive the vaccine in exchange for a copy of their voter identification card.
The voter identification card, which looks like a driver’s license, contains an individual’s home address, voter code, and personal information which, in the wrong hands, could be used to apply for bank credit, open a credit card or steal a person’s identity.
After being notified by Pfizer-BioNTech, one of the companies manufacturing the COVID-19 vaccine, on January 5, Mexican authorities announced the suspension of a website posing as the official Pfizer Mexico platform. The website, whose seemingly official URL—pfizermx.com—and polished interface, replete with company logos, listed a phone number to call to order the vaccine.
In a press conference, Mexico’s Undersecretary of Health Prevention and Promotion, Hugo López-Gatell emphasized that “there is no authorization to sell the vaccine. If someone claims to be selling you the COVID vaccine, they are committing fraud and putting you at risk.”
As misinformation on the pandemic surges, online scams promising vaccines or reserved spots in line are likely to increase, as opportunistic criminals look to make a quick buck on the public health crisis.
In Cancún, Mexico negative COVID-19 test results are being sold to tourists on social media platforms. Canadian tourists in need of a negative test to return home, are being charged $100 dollars for forged results which are sent to them within the hour, according to an article from Le Devoir.
Back in November, the Associated Press reported a similar scheme in Paris, where fake negative test results were being sold to travelers at Charles De Gaulle airport for $180 to $360.
Global travel restrictions have created a market for negative COVID-19 results, which looks poised to grow as countries seek to prevent the cross-border spread of new virus strains by requiring all international travelers to present a negative test result to gain entry.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already bred numerous illicit economies, but few as potentially harmful as the falsification of COVID-19 vaccines. As vaccination programs ramp up across Latin America, scams selling access to the coveted liquid are likely to continue, with victims bearing both the financial and health consequences.