CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:
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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
Even as the very first COVID vaccines were being shipped out across the world from Pfizer and Moderna, Interpol - the International Policing Organization - issued a warning that organized crime would see the great demand for these vaccines as an opportunity.
GARCIA: Interpol warned about shipments of vaccines possibly getting stolen, and it also warned about counterfeit vaccines getting sold on the black market.
VANEK SMITH: In fact, the COVID crisis has created a whole universe of opportunity for criminals. Fear and scarcity and high demand are very powerful market forces.
GARCIA: Chad Anderson has been watching these forces play out for months. He's a senior security researcher at DomainTools.
CHAD ANDERSON: We're a cyberthreat intelligence data company. So we scan the entire Internet as many times as we can every single day and give insights to customers based upon what we see.
VANEK SMITH: You scan the Internet?
VANEK SMITH: Like, the whole thing?
ANDERSON: The whole thing, as much as we can, yeah.
VANEK SMITH: What?
GARCIA: And part of the whole Internet is the so-called dark web. That's the unregulated part of the web where a lot of illegal activity happens.
VANEK SMITH: So I feel like the dark web - it sounds very mysterious. And, like, I've never been there. It seems like Narnia or something. Like, what is the dark web like?
ANDERSON: (Laughter) There's many things when people talk about the dark web. But Facebook has an in-point in there, and so does the CIA and other people.
VANEK SMITH: Really?
VANEK SMITH: There's a dark web Facebook?
ANDERSON: There is. Yeah, yeah. But most of the time, what people are referring to is these anonymous services and illegal forums or illegal marketplaces.
GARCIA: Illegal marketplaces where you can buy drugs or weapons or passports or COVID vaccines. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Cardiff Garcia.
VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show - COVID and the dark web. Chad Anderson takes us on a journey deep into the belly of the dark web, where we explore the black market for COVID vaccines.
GARCIA: Dark web marketplaces are basically like a dark web Amazon or a dark web Etsy. These marketplaces do billions of dollars' worth of business. And in fact, to stand out in this highly competitive environment, a lot of dark web marketplaces have specialized.
VANEK SMITH: Some do only weapons. Others focus exclusively on prescription drugs. And some have branded themselves as the more woke dark web, I guess?
ANDERSON: Dark Market (ph) is the largest one, and it's the first market run entirely by women.
VANEK SMITH: I have very mixed feelings about that. I'm like, part of - my brain is like, that's great, go women. And part of me is, like, very conflicted, very conflicted about that.
ANDERSON: Yeah. Well, they don't allow fentanyl. They don't allow explosives or human trafficking.
GARCIA: Chad has been seeing the market for all things COVID going strong this year. Back in March, he actually saw cleaning products, masks and hospital gowns for sale on the dark web, and he says that was super weird.
ANDERSON: It was a scary moment. Like, has this stuff become, like, this hard to come by that, you know...
ANDERSON: ...We're having to sell it on these illicit marketplaces? So now we're starting to see some coronavirus vaccines. You know, I'm looking at maybe 200 different ads here.
VANEK SMITH: So can you read us some of the ads that you've found?
ANDERSON: Yeah, let me pull one up I'm looking at here. So, you know, the ad says 10 COVID-19 vaccines. The price is 3,276 euros.
GARCIA: That's about $4,000 U.S. dollars, so about $400 per vaccine.
ANDERSON: Free shipping and handling, of course. And then they have the accepted cryptocurrencies that they take, where they ship from - which is the U.K. - where they ship to and then has a big message that says, consumers are always satisfied.
VANEK SMITH: Oh, wow.
ANDERSON: Two hundred different ads here. Another one, you know, says that they do escrow orders. This one's four bottles of COVID-19 vaccine - 661 euros for that one.
GARCIA: That's about $800, so $200 per vaccine, half of what it cost in the first ad. The market is so new, Chad says, that the prices are just all over the place.
VANEK SMITH: Yeah. And for the record, Chad does not think that these vaccines are legit. For one thing, the Pfizer vaccine requires a very intense cold storage chain. The vaccines have to be kept at negative-70 degrees Fahrenheit. But also, the sites that Chad has seen these ads on are kind of the less-legit dark web marketplaces. They're kind of fringy. They haven't branded themselves or specialized. And also, the COVID vaccine ads are mixed in with ads for all kinds of other things, and Chad says that tends to be a red flag.
ANDERSON: Since we're in the C's, you scroll up and there's cocaine. You know, scroll down, you've got your heroine and, you know, molly, meth - you name it - as well as, you know, this site has firearms.
GARCIA: Chad says a lot of the COVID-19 vendors don't even have reviews, and typically, vendor reviews from customers are crucial in a dark web marketplace, just like they are on regular online marketplaces, but even more so in the dark web because trust is a major concern on the dark web. So people want some kind of assurance that the drugs or weapons that they are buying are actually real because if they're not real, you can't just lodge a complaint with the Better Business Bureau or something like that.
VANEK SMITH: Can you read us one of the reviews?
ANDERSON: Yeah. Let's see. Let's do - so (laughter) it reads like an eBay review. A-plus, plus, plus, plus, you know, best I've gotten - just, like, little things like that, yeah.
VANEK SMITH: What was the ad for?
ANDERSON: That was for LSD.
GARCIA: Chad says the global COVID crisis has been a massive opportunity for cybercriminals. He says the online marketplaces are still a tiny part of it right now, and most of the criminal activity has involved ransomware.
ANDERSON: When hospitals first started getting inundated in March, April of this year, there was several large hacker groups that were selling remote access into hospital networks on the dark web.
VANEK SMITH: Chad says because lives are at stake and there's so much chaos and urgency right now, criminal organizations know that if they hack into the system of a hospital, they can demand and probably get a lot of money. Back in October, one hospital in New Jersey paid cybercriminals more than $650,000 after the criminals locked up their computer systems and threatened to publish all of their patient records.
GARCIA: But it's not just hospitals that criminals are targeting. Remember - the Pfizer vaccine needs to be kept really cold, and not many companies specialize in that kind of ultracold transport, and most of them probably don't have super advanced security systems. So now cybercriminals are seeing a major opportunity targeting those cold storage companies.
ANDERSON: They'll take over these cold storage companies, where - and say, like, hey, we're going to shut off the fridges if you don't pay, and all that expensive Pfizer vaccine is going to go away.
GARCIA: Chad expects that these kinds of attacks will become more frequent in coming months because, after all, the payoff for those kinds of attacks are much bigger than a couple of thousand dollars for the COVID vaccines.
VANEK SMITH: Although Chad also expects the vaccine marketplace will continue to grow on the dark web. In fact, even during our conversation, more ads for the Pfizer vaccine were being posted.
ANDERSON: All of these are kind of like, contact the vendor for more. Oh, this one has a phone number that is a 707 number. What area code is that?
VANEK SMITH: Northern California.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The Google (ph) subscriber you have called is not available. Please leave a message after the tone.
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VANEK SMITH: Yeah, hi. I was calling about an online ad that I saw.
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VANEK SMITH: They have not, as of yet, called me back.
GARCIA: I'm not surprised.
VANEK SMITH: But, you know, still waiting.
GARCIA: Yeah, I wouldn't hold my breath (laughter).
VANEK SMITH: Still waiting.
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VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jamila Huxtable and fact-checked by Sean Saldana. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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