Unscrupulous criminals hungry for cash are calling and texting to steal from consumers by purporting they can get them an early vaccine, says Lev J. Kubiak, vice president and chief security officer for New York City-based Pfizer.
Some crooks on the WhatsApp platform have promoted “vaccine tourism” packages for travel to the U.S., touting airfare, hotel rooms and meals along with a coronavirus vaccine, Kubiak says. Online ads for a purported vaccine are beginning to sprout like weeds, as he tells it, and robocalls telling people they could avoid long lines and get a Pfizer vaccine for $79.99 are moving around the country.
Important to know: The only way to access Pfizer's vaccine is through a government-authorized vaccination center in your state, he says.
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Be skeptical of vaccine offers
If “someone is offering you a place in line, or access to a limited quantity that you couldn't otherwise get, the first question really should be, ‘Who is this person and why are they are they making this available to me?’" Kubiak tells AARP.
It's not just a quick buck the crooks are chasing. Dangling the prospect of an early vaccine, some try to wheedle Social Security numbers and bank account or credit card numbers out of consumers.
Kubiak, 54, worked for more than two decades in federal law enforcement, chiefly for the Department of Homeland Security, before joining Pfizer in 2016. What's most worrisome? “The No. 1 thing that is most troubling to me is that any illegal activity raises doubt in the minds of a population that is already somewhat worried about taking a vaccine. And so any type of scam, any type of fraudulent offer, further complicates that vaccine confidence."
With the vaccine in short supply now and worldwide demand high, consumers should “be aware that criminals are in this space,” he says, and are “very willing to take advantage of people that are desperate to address the pandemic."
Care facility targeted
Criminals are targeting not only individuals but also care facilities, he says, describing a phony “pharmaceutical representative” who offered to sell a residential care facility a number of vaccines to inoculate its patients and staff. Fortunately, though, administrators suspected something was amiss, contacted Pfizer and learned it was a ruse, he says.
Talking about the pandemic-induced onslaught of scams and frauds, Kubiak says Pfizer noticed criminal organizations purporting to sell coronavirus vaccines last spring, many months before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Dec. 11 authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use in this country. (Now the FDA is poised to authorize a second coronavirus vaccine, from Moderna, for emergency use in the U.S.)
Throughout the health crisis, Pfizer surveilled COVID-19 scams and reported what it spotted to government authorities, Kubiak says. “We began to scour the open web and the dark web for anything — any intelligence — related to COVID-19 related scams.” The intelligence it tracked and shared dealt with counterfeit protective gear — face masks, gloves and gowns, for example — and counterfeit treatments.
Even last spring “we saw criminal organizations purporting to sell vaccines when no vaccine existed,” he says. That told Pfizer officials that regardless of which drug manufacturer's vaccine candidate would be greenlighted, the potential for fakes was high.
Last April Europol, the European Union police agency, warned about the “potential harm of offline and online scams offering alleged versions of the COVID-19 vaccine.” Earlier this month, it urged countries to be vigilant about “possible involvement of criminals in the vaccine development and distribution process."
Observed Kubiak: “Anytime you have a shortage and a group of desperate individuals seeking to obtain things that they need ... you always find criminals taking advantage.”
Kubiak says experience trying to combat the multibillion-dollar scourge of counterfeit drugs worldwide positioned Pfizer to help tackle the crimes it foresaw would erupt once a coronavirus vaccine emerged. Already fakes purporting to be popular drugs such as Viagra, Lipitor and Xanax are not just a major headache for legitimate drug manufacturers, they can be deadly to consumers, he says. As an example of a lethal product, he pointed to the antianxiety pill Xanax being laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid typically used for advanced cancer pain.
Pfizer works with customs organizations and federal law enforcement agencies around the globe “to help interdict and stop and identify significant counterfeiters that are involved in profiting from this type of trade,” according to Kubiak, who says it's also important to raise public awareness.
"The best offense is a good defense, as they say,” he concludes. “The more we can educate people, the more we can reduce the demand for counterfeit medicines."
FBI: Report Vaccine Scams and COVID-19 Fraud
The FBI said it “remains vigilant as scammers continue to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic for personal gain.”
In a statement Thursday to AARP, the bureau acknowledged complaints of scammers using the public’s interest in COVID-19 vaccines to obtain personally identifiable information (PII) and money through various schemes. PII includes Social Security numbers and other sensitive data.
“The FBI continues to work diligently with our law enforcement partners and the private sector to identify cyber threats and fraud in all forms,” the statement added.
Victims of COVID-19 fraud are encouraged to immediately report cases to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center.