Fraudsters stealing identities of doctors and scientists to scam people into buying Covid-19 vaccines

Words by ITV News UK Editor Paul Brand, and Producers Nathan Lee and Harry Peet. 

Fraudsters are stealing the identity of doctors and scientists to scam people into buying Covid-19 vaccines online. 

An ITV News investigation has uncovered multiple posts on Facebook and other platforms claiming to supply both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccines. 

Several of the posts use stolen photos of doctors and nurses from London's Chelsea and Westminster Hospital to pose as medical professionals. 

Another advert used the photo of Bruce Thompson, a former scientist at Pfizer, to try and sell us a vaccine, offering us 200 doses for $1,200 (£878), promising to deliver in 48 hours.

When we spoke to the scammer over the phone, he told us we would have to inject ourselves, but that the vaccine would come with instructions. 

  • Watch ITV News UK Editor Paul Brand communicating with a scammer offering the Pfizer vaccine for $15 a dose:

The only way to lawfully access a vaccine in the UK is via the NHS.

Pfizer told us: "We’re aware that names and images of individuals associated with Pfizer are fraudulently being used as part of online scams… no legitimate vaccine is sold in this way.” 

Covid vaccines were advertised online and on social media. Credit: ITV News

A separate scammer stole the identity of a doctor currently working in intensive care in a London hospital, who asked us not to name her.

When we traced her identity, she told us: "To be informed scammers were using my photo as a medical professional in order to provide validity and credibility to their products is distasteful and appalling.”  

  • Watch the moment a scammer offered to deliver 200 doses of the vaccine for over £1,000:

Despite repeated requests, the doctor could not persuade Facebook to take the advert down, with the social media company insisting it did not violate their guidelines. 

While all of the adverts we found on social media appeared to be financial scams, a group of academics investigating the dark web have found sellers who appear to have access to genuine vaccines.

In 22 posts, the researchers from a team of universities found doses of vaccine selling for up to $1,000 (£721) each. 

Covid vaccines are only available on the NHS. Credit: PA

Andrea Baronchelli from City University told us: "The financial scam is kind of the best outcome you can have.

"The problem is if you get something real.

"With something real, you don't know what it is.

"Imagine if that just a few doses turn out to be problematic - the lack of trust among the public towards vaccines could be fired by such an event."

Police have warned of a surge in online adverts.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) told us they saw an extraordinary 11,500% rise in such scams in one week of January alone.

Ben Russell from the NCA told us: "These are the same people who used to tell us we'd won the Spanish lottery.

"At the beginning of the pandemic they were very focused on PPE, trying to sell fraudulent face masks.

"Now the vaccine is the new thing. Who knows what's next?"

A spokesperson for Facebook said: “We have removed the account and posts flagged to us for violating our policies on inauthentic behaviour and regulated goods.

"We prohibit content that tries to exploit the pandemic for commercial gain, including posts that promote the sale of a Covid-19 vaccine. 

"We also ban adverts that include vaccine hoaxes or discourage people from getting a vaccine and we put warning labels over vaccine posts marked as false by third party fact checkers.” 

The posts were finally removed when we asked the company for comment. 

ITV News UK Editor Paul Brand spoke to scammers claiming to sell Covid vaccines. Credit: ITV News
  • How we sussed the scammers

As part of our investigation into fake vaccines, we found a number of pages on Facebook advertising Covid vaccines.

Using key search terms on Facebook such as 'vaccine for sale', we located one page that was stealing the identity of a real NHS intensive care unit doctor.

The site was using her image as a way of enhancing its legitimacy as a vaccine "seller".

Advertising themselves as "a group of medical personnel trying to fight against this deadly epidermic [sic]", the sellers did their deals over WhatsApp.

Acting as a buyer who needs a vaccine for work and holidays, the seller offered us the Pfizer vaccine for £10 a dose with a minimum order of 500 doses.

They said they were based in Cardiff and could deliver to us, as well as charge a higher fee to have someone administer the vaccine.

Using reverse image search tools available online, we were able to find the original source of the doctor's images and managed to track her down.

The London-based doctor has been experiencing the reality of Covid on the frontline throughout the pandemic, treating those struck down and many dying, with the virus.

She was unaware that her images were being used in this way calling it “distasteful" and "appalling".

The doctor has made several attempts to have the fake profile removed using Facebook's reporting process, but the page was still active until ITV News approached them. It has since been removed.