In March the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the Covid-19 outbreak is a pandemic. Varying measures have been implemented to control the curve of cases and limit the strain placed on health services.
This infectious respiratory disease has left pharmaceutical companies frantically searching for a vaccination, whilst other health related products such as facemasks and tests remain in short supply. As a result, cybercriminals and opportunists are profiting through the sale of falsified medical devices and products online.
Counterfeits, fakes, and marketplace activity
The escalating issue of counterfeit facemasks in China was made clear back in February when Kyodo News (based in Tokyo) reported that Chinese officials had seized 31 million fake face masks during the coronavirus outbreak. Many falsified devices which enter Europe and the US originate from Asia.
The World Health Organization had expressed concern about a number of misleading medical devices available on popular marketplace Amazon. These items included falsified medical devices and allegedly effective treatments available for purchase. They also believe that fake news and content related to the coronavirus were causing mass confusion amongst shoppers and urged Amazon to prevent it.
Amazon responded to the issue by removing more than one million falsified medical devices or incorrectly priced items as sellers attempted to exploit the situation for their own financial gains. eBay reported similar issues, delisting hundreds of thousands of coronavirus-related medical devices, whilst suspending thousands of “bad sellers.”
Now, marketplaces are focusing their efforts on stocking commodity items to aid the situation and in many cases have delayed or stopped shipping nonessential items, recognizing the important role their business has to play in supporting consumers worldwide during these challenging times.
The response from marketplaces may see social media channels become vital platforms for cybercriminals to drive traffic to websites, increasing sales of counterfeit and falsified products and medical devices.
Falsified and counterfeits defined
It’s important that we differentiate between falsified medical devices, counterfeit and falsified medicinal products:
Falsified medical devices means any device with a false presentation of its identity and/or of its source and/or its CE marking certificates or documents relating to CE marking procedures. This definition does not include unintentional non-compliance and is without prejudice to infringements of intellectual property rights.
Counterfeit medical devices are medical devices which infringe on intellectual property and trademark law.
Falsified medicines are medical products with a false representation of:
(a) its identity, including its packaging and labelling, its name or its composition as regards any of the ingredients including excipients and the strength of those ingredients.
(b) its source, including its manufacturer, its country of manufacturing, its country of origin or its marketing authorization holder; or
(c) its history, including the records and documents relating to the distribution channels used.
Counterfeit medicines are also falsified medical products, but they infringe on intellectual property and trademark law.
The danger of counterfeit and fake medicines and devices
Falsified Covid-19 tests and medicines which either claim to ease the symptoms or vaccinate against the illness are appearing across various digital channels. Whilst some legitimate tests exist and are becoming available, the majority are false and entirely inaccurate. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers are reported to have seized vast numbers of falsified coronavirus test kits over recent weeks.
There are currently no approved medicines for the virus, and the FDA has continually advised against the purchase of any products and devices including facemasks and tests which claim to treat or prevent the infection. Approved medicines are developed and tested under strict conditions, needless to say, counterfeit or falsified medicines do not follow the same process. They often contain varying quantities, or different active ingredients to that of the official product. These fake medicines are rarely tested leaving consumers at great risk of unknown side effects, allergic reactions, or even death.
During moments such as this, high street stores close and governments ensure consumers stay home, so many are reliant on the internet to obtain medicines and healthcare products. This presents a lucrative opportunity for cybercriminals who are becoming ever more sophisticated in their methods of advertising and selling fake items online, and it’s becoming more and more difficult for consumers to decipher between what’s real and what’s fake. In fact, many consumers are blissfully unaware that these dangerous falsified medicines and devices even exist.
Supporting pharmaceutical companies and protecting consumers during Covid-19
Companies from all over the world are offering their various services to help fight the threat caused by this pandemic, and we at Smart Brand Protection have joined the effort. We contacted a variety of businesses at national and European level to offer our protection free of charge with the aim of minimizing the effects of Covid-19.
As a consequence, we have been collaborating with European authorities to monitor 11 medicines, three facemasks and one test which may be subject to online counterfeits and scams. By monitoring Google, marketplaces and social networks we hope to ensure that dangerous counterfeit drugs and medicines are not being made available to vulnerable consumers.
“We hope that our contribution helps in the measures to control the effects of the coronavirus.”
Javier Perea – CEO – Smart Protection
Dates: We would like to share our findings concerning the Covid-19 related content we discovered during a two-week period (18 – 31 March 2020).
Key Covid-19 reference dates: Nationwide lockdown declaration in Italy on March 9, Spain on March 14, France on March 17, UK on March 24. Germany issues strict social distancing measures on March 22.
Products monitored: We monitored three facemasks; KN95, FFP2, and N95 which have been endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO). We also monitored a total of 11 active principles and medical keywords which were designed to fight or prevent a variety of illnesses and diseases including influenza and viruses, HIV, arthritis, Malaria and Ebola (ARBIDOL, DARUNAVIRV, LOPINAVIR, RITONAVIR, TOCILIZUMAB, FAVILAVIR, REMDESIVIR, GALIDESIVIR, HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE, IBUPROFEN, ANTI-HYPERTENSION).
Channels monitored: Google, Social media (Twitter, Instagram, YouTube), Marketplaces (Alibaba, Aliexpress, Amazon.com, Amazon.de, Amazon.es, Amazon.fr, Amazon.it, Amazon.uk, Carousell, eBay, eBay.es, eBay.uk, Milanuncios, Modrykonik, Taobao, Tmall, Vibbo, Wallapop, Wish)
Data processed: In this time, we processed a total of six million pieces of content relating to medicines, facemasks, and test across the specified digital channels.
Findings: 85% (approximately five million) were from social networks, 8% on marketplaces and the remaining 7% on Google.
Taking a closer look at the content we monitored across social media, we saw a split of 60% on Twitter, where content is largely focused on keywords of medicines, whilst the additional 40% was discovered on Instagram which is mainly concentrated around facemasks.
Interestingly we saw a 500% increase in Covid-19 related content on Twitter between 20th and 22nd March. It was around this time that confinement measures were increased in Italy, Spain extended its isolation period, and the EU had recently closed its borders. The data that we collected from Instagram remained consistent throughout the two-week monitoring period.
We detected numerous accounts on Instagram which contain the official facemask names KN95, FFP2 and N95. While many of these accounts are new, and have just a handful of followers, we did discover an Instagram account named “themiraclemask”. This account, despite having just five publications has more than 42,000 followers and linked to a website selling fake facemasks (see below).
Despite the amount of facemask related content on Instagram, we did notice that the level gradually decreased during the monitoring period. However, of the total percentage of infringing content discovered, 58% was found throughout social channels.
In Marketplaces such as AliExpress, Amazon, and Alibaba we detected 442,000 listings from various countries relating to medicines and facemasks. Keywords such as “Korona virus”, “Wuhan Virus” and “Corona 19″ are being used to promote facemasks and medicines on these platforms. In the image below you can see a typical fake medicine promoted on the Alibaba marketplace:
There was a significant increase in the content which we analyzed specifically relating to facemasks. On AliExpress between 19th and 25th March levels hovered between 22,000 and 28,000 before dropping sharply.
Whilst we acknowledge that the number of listings relating to medicines in marketplaces is lower than that of facemasks, we did still find a peak of 5,000 in a single day on amazon.it. AliExpress also hit highs of 4,000 before dropping significantly between 26th and 27th March.
On 23 March, the day Boris Johnson announced confinement in the United Kingdom, the illegal supply of medicines on eBay UK doubled.
Of the total percentage of infringing content discovered, 38% was found across marketplaces.
Our four key findings
- 58% of the illegal supply of coronavirus-related drugs and masks were found on social media, while 38% was seen across e-commerce platforms, with Alibaba providing the most.
- Medicines with the active ingredients Arbidol, Hydroxychloroquine and Favipavir are the most illegally promoted on the Internet as solutions to Covid-19, mainly on the Alibaba platform. The highest counterfeiting results to date have been obtained from the term “MASK KN95 FFP2”, a mask with valve.
- The use of codes to promote medicines is common. Specific keywords are used to position the counterfeit health products on the Internet in order to avoid the control mechanisms established by the platforms themselves. The code “155213-67-5” is used as a keyword to promote Ritonavir in marketplaces and the code “1809249-37-3” for Remdesivir.
- The removal of Instagram posts that advertise and sell some of the monitored medications is detected, especially Arbidol and Favipavir. These are recently created social media profiles – one or two weeks old – that provide direct links to fake websites where the products can be purchased, intentionally avoiding large marketplaces. Numerous accounts have been created using the mask names “KN95 / FFP2 / N95”, which, despite having very few followers, have created up to 463,000 pieces of content on this social network during this monitoring period.
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