Singapore joins Interpol-led global crime task force against COVID-19 vaccine scams

SINGAPORE (CNA) – Singapore is joining an Interpol-led global financial crime task force looking into a number of areas, including COVID-19 vaccine scams.

The task force, initially comprising Singapore, the United States (US), the United Kingdom and Ireland, will look at illicit money flows in transnational financial crimes and how countries can combat these crimes more effectively.

The task force has three “clear priorities” to start with, Interpol Director of Cybercrime Craig Jones told CNA at its global complex for innovation in Singapore last week. This is the base from which the world police body fights cybercrime internationally.

“The second one is looking at the counterfeiting or the facilitating of the (COVID-19) vaccines, whether it’s online or in the vaccines actually being shipped out,” said Jones, who will be leading the task force.

Interpol’s Director of Cybercrime Craig Jones. PHOTO: CNA

This comes as Interpol has seen an increasing trend of online COVID-19 vaccine scams as countries roll out their vaccination programmes, with the networks conducting these scams having possible financial links in Singapore and other major financial hubs.

“There is nowhere to go online to buy a vaccine at the moment. People need to understand this,” Jones said.

“But again, what the criminals are then preying on is the vulnerability of communities – that fear, effectively. But also using the technology as well to carry out those crimes.”

Interpol said in a news release on March 24 that cyber criminals have set up illicit websites claiming to be legitimate national or world organisations offering pre-orders for COVID-19 vaccines. These websites offer to get payment in Bitcoin and other processing methods.

“Using trademark logos of major pharmaceutical companies producing approved COVID-19 vaccines, the fake websites are suspected of being used to conduct phishing attacks and/or dupe victims into giving charitable donations,” Interpol said.

“In addition to opening up their computer to cyberattacks when attempting to purchase alleged COVID-19 vaccines online, people also run the risk of having their identity stolen.”

Interpol Secretary-General Jurgen Stock said in a statement that the networks behind these crimes have “global ambitions”.

“Interpol is assisting law enforcement around the world to both identify criminal networks and to dismantle them,” he said.

The world police body will also organise a global virtual meeting with its member countries to discuss the threats and disruption methods in this area.

Interpol announced on March 3 that South African authorities had seized hundreds of fake COVID-19 vaccines following an Interpol global alert warning that vaccines would be a prime target for criminal networks.

About 400 ampoules, or around 2,400 doses, of the fake vaccine were found in a warehouse in South Africa, where officers also recovered a large quantity of fake 3M masks and arrested three Chinese nationals and a Zambian national.

In China, police identified a network selling counterfeit COVID-19 vaccines, raided its manufacturing premises and arrested about 80 suspects. More than 3,000 fake vaccines were seized at the scene, Interpol said.

Asked if this transnational network selling fake COVID-19 vaccines had any links to Singapore, Jones said, “There’s links everywhere.”

“The links are there. So, what we see specifically sometimes is where the money flows. The criminals will look at any infrastructure that is able to facilitate those money movements,” he added.

“So, there are a number of different links on our operations to countries that either have those financial centres as well.”