Phishing emails target victims with fake vaccine passport offer

Overhead view of an human hand holding a passport and a smart phone with a digital illustration of a certificate of vaccination against the Covid-19 disease.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Cyber criminals are using offering fake vaccine passports as lures in phishing email scams, according to security researchers at Fortinet.

“Successfully enticing the general population to open a malicious email attachment with the promise of receiving an illegal product may be a first. It reflects how polarizing this issue is and why cyber criminals think that they can successfully exploit it,” Fortinet said.

The researchers discovered an email with an advertisement for a fake COVID vaccine passport that requests Bitcoin payment. The Bitcoin address had zero transactions, which means no one seems to have yet fallen for this scam. The researchers were also unsure if the criminals behind the email would ever send a fake vaccine passport, or if it was a regular phishing exercise or even both.

“What's clear is that scammers ask the target for personally identifiable information (PII) along with USD 149.95 worth of Bitcoin for a potentially double windfall,” said researchers.

Other attempts appeared more professional using the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) address to appear legitimate.

“The link in this email did not lead to any official document but instead redirected the user to a legitimate server that had been compromised. While the link has been taken down, indicators suggest that this compromised server was used in a phishing attempt,” said researchers.

Researchers also found markets on the dark web offering fake vaccine passports, ranging from blank vaccine cards to verifiable passports that can be checked against legitimate vaccine databases worldwide. They found a single blank vaccination card for $5, but researchers again added there was no guarantee a purchaser would ever receive these documents after paying.

Researchers said the demand for fake vaccine passports seems to be growing due to the large population of people who resist taking or are unable to take the vaccine but want to avoid restrictions.

“Without missing a beat, email scammers and black-market criminals have acted on this demand,” said researchers. “Because these criminals use phishing techniques to socially engineer and lure victims into following steps laid out by the attacker, it is vital to address these challenges.”

Researchers recommended organizations conduct ongoing training designed to educate and inform personnel about the latest phishing/spear-phishing techniques and how to spot and respond to them.

Rene Millman

Rene Millman is a freelance writer and broadcaster who covers cybersecurity, AI, IoT, and the cloud. He also works as a contributing analyst at GigaOm and has previously worked as an analyst for Gartner covering the infrastructure market. He has made numerous television appearances to give his views and expertise on technology trends and companies that affect and shape our lives. You can follow Rene Millman on Twitter.