Baltimore, Maryland – The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland seized “freevaccinecovax.org” which claimed to be the website of a genuine biotechnology company developing a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus, but was instead used to collect the personal information of individuals visiting the site, in order to use the information for malicious purposes, including fraud, phishing attacks and/or the deployment of malware. People visiting the site will now see a message that the site has been seized by the federal government and will be redirected to another site for additional information.
The domain name seizure was announced by Acting United States Attorney for the District of Maryland Jonathan F. Lenzner and Special Agent in Charge James R. Mancuso of Homeland Security Investigations – Baltimore.
“This is the ninth fraudulent website seeking to illegally profit from the COVID-19 pandemic that we have seized,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Jonathan F. Lenzner. “Members of the public should not provide personal information or click on links in unsolicited emails and should remember that the COVID-19 vaccine is not for sale. The federal government is providing the vaccine free of charge to people living in the U.S. Together with our partners at HSI, we will continue to aggressively pursue fraudsters who seek to prey on unsuspecting residents and their families.
“It’s a scary thought, but what HSI wants the public to understand is that all a bad guy needs to defraud thousands of Americans looking for information about COVD-19 is is the ability to create a website combined with malicious intent,” said Special Agent James Mancuso. HSI Baltimore field office manager. “We must make an example of these perpetrators in order to deter others from committing these crimes against an unsuspecting and vulnerable internet user.”
According to the affidavit filed in support of the seizure, the HSI Intellectual Property Rights Center (“IPRC”) and the HSI Cyber Crimes Center (“C3”) discovered an apparently fraudulent website, named “freevaccinecovax.org “. A domain analysis conducted by HSI indicated that the domain name was created on April 27, 2021, using an IP address located in Strasbourg. The reporting country was Russia.
HSI’s Cyber Operations Manager (COO) who conducted domain analysis noted that the brand logos of Pfizer, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ( UNHCR) appeared on the home page of the fraudulent site. Specifically, the fraudulent website contained a “Select your city” drop-down list and “Apply” and “Download Application” buttons. By selecting a city and clicking “Apply”, a PDF file is downloaded to your computer. This PDF file is written in Cyrillic. Once the PDF is completed, it can then be uploaded to the website by clicking the “Upload Application” button.
By seizing the site, the government prevented third parties from acquiring the name and using it to commit other crimes, as well as preventing third parties from continuing to access the site in its current form.
Federal law enforcement agencies are united in our efforts to combat COVID-19 fraud. HSI identified tips to recognize and report COVID-19 fraud. If you believe you have been the victim of fraud or attempted fraud involving COVID-19, you can also call the National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline at 1-866-720-5721 or for more information, visit justice.gov/coronavirus.
Acting United States Attorney Jonathan F. Lenzner commended HSI for its work in this investigation. Mr. Lenzner thanked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Bureau of Criminal Investigations, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Baltimore County Police Department for their assistance and thanked the assistant U.S. prosecutors Aaron SJ Zelinsky and Sean R. Delaney, who are handling the case.
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