Cyber criminals are now selling potentially counterfeit surgical face masks on dark web marketplaces in a rush to exploit the supply shortage resulting from the outbreak in China.
The face mask listings were detected by risk management company Digital Shadows on English-language marketplace Empire, which is known for selling illegal drugs and hacking equipment.
Pictures featured in the listings show plain masks without the advanced respirators capable of filtering small virus particles, although it isn’t clear whether these images are legitimate.
The disease caused by the coronavirus, COVID-19, has now infected more than 156,000 people worldwide, driving demand for normal surgical face masks despite the lack of evidence they prevent transmission.
Digital Shadows identified a number of criminal enterprises attempting to exploit this demand, including on dark web marketplaces which are specifically referencing COVID-19 to market their goods.
One listing offers to sell boxes of 2,000 surgical face masks for $6,500 (£5,300) each, pricing an individual mask at $3.25 (£2.65).
Another supplier based in Ukraine claimed to be able to manufacture 200,000 masks every two to three weeks – rates that would almost certainly impact the quality of the masks themselves.
“Vendors like these typically engage in the sale of illicit drugs, but have clearly seen a market opportunity to branch out into medical equipment,” the company reported.
:: Listen to the Daily podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Spreaker
Even away from the dark web, Digital Shadows found hundreds of websites had been registered and set-up on the open web within the past few weeks offering heavily discounted face masks.
There is a huge risk that these products are counterfeit, but in some cases the masks potentially don’t even exist at all – and once enough consumers have handed over their money, the website will simply disappear.
According to the UK’s national fraud intelligence bureau, British people have been swindled out of more than £800,000 by attempting to buy masks from fake sellers.
Cyber criminal gangs are also targeting healthcare professionals with phishing emails about “coronavirus awareness” – part of a wave of scams capitalising on the pandemic.
Sky News has seen a copy of an email scam sent to a number of healthcare organisations that pretends to be from each firm’s internal IT team.
The email – which has the subject “ALL STAFF: CORONA VIRUS AWARENESS” – tells employees that “the institution is currently organising a seminar for all staff to talk about this deadly virus”, asking them to click on a link to register.
The link takes anyone clicking on it to a third-party website disguised as an Outlook web app. Anyone who fills in that form ends up giving their details to the hackers.
Digital Shadows reported similar findings about phishing campaigns using COVID-19 as a lure.
It said: “Health organisations such as the WHO and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been prime targets for impersonation due to their perceived authority.”
“Attackers have been observed tempting victims with URLs or document downloads using promises of important safety documentation or infection maps,” the company added, noting that the topic had been a popular discussion point on cyber crime forums.