- Telegram is a heavily encrypted messaging platform that can be accessed worldwide.
- There has been a 200% increase in fake vaccine card sales on the app since March.
- Fake COVID-related products are illegal to buy and sell and violate most social-media guidelines.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Cybersecurity data firm Check Point Research began a probe into alleged Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for sale on the “dark web” in January, but its investigation quickly led to investigating other pandemic-related sales across the regular world wide web.
That was when a different platform entered the chat – Telegram.
Telegram, which has more than 500 million users, operates much like other messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, WeChat, and Viber, except it offers several unique features, like the self-destruction of messages and accounts after a certain period of time. Telegram is easier to access than the dark web because it can be downloaded from the App Store, funneling ordinary people into its message stream.
Check Point said it found a 200% increase in the number of vaccine card sales on Telegram since March. The data firm only expects this number to grow as US cities, universities, and workplaces begin rolling out vaccine mandates and millions of eligible Americans decline getting inoculated against the novel coronavirus.
“Advertisements being extended on social media platforms are ultimately funneling [users] to a darker, more dangerous criminal world with these vendors on Telegram,” Check Point spokesperson Ekram Ahmed told Insider. “And these Telegram vendors are likely an extension of darknet vendors.”
“There’s been a macro shift that has happened from the dark net all the way towards Telegram, in terms of these fake or fraudulent coronavirus services,” Ahmed added. “I think as more and more vaccine mandates get rolled out, this market thrives.”
The end-to-end encryption is available for features like voice or video calls and Telegram’s “secret chats” feature, providing an extra barrier of protection for users. But most other activity on the app can be monitored by Telegram administrators, who can technically alert authorities to observable activity around the sale of vaccine cards.
Telegram did not respond to Insider’s request to comment on how its platform is being used.
In recent months, arrests have surged related to the sale and usage of fake vaccine cards. Buying and selling fake cards is a federal crime because the cards have unauthorized use of an official government seal.
“The only legitimate way to get proof that you’re vaccinated – or that you test negative – is to get vaccinated and to test negative,” a spokesperson from the FTC told Insider.
Buying and selling fake vaccine cards violate the terms of agreement for social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, spokespeople from the companies explained to Insider. Those platforms use algorithms and second-hand user reporting to catch accounts in violation of these rules. Violators can face suspension and termination from the social media sites.
Aside from the potential legal liability for taking part in fake vaccine-card sales, there’s the risk of handing over personal information to near-anonymous vendors who populate Telegram. When Check Point investigated the app posing as potential buyers, Ahmed and his team were asked intrusive questions about personal details by fake vaccine card vendors, including location, birthday, email address, workplace, and banking information.
Vendors can use this sensitive information against buyers, committing crimes like identity theft or fraud.
“The type of information that they ask for is a little bit more intrusive than what you would need to just craft a fake card and ship it over,” Ahmed explained. “Anytime you share your information with someone on the darknet, or even these Telegram vendors, you have no idea what they can do with it.”