Three men from Baltimore were accused by federal prosecutors of setting up a fake website to sell Covid-19 vaccines for $ 30 a dose.
The men, Olakitan Oluwalade, 22, and Odunayo Baba Oluwalade, 25, who are cousins, and Kelly Lamont Williams, 22, are charged with conspiracy for wire fraud, the Maryland District Attorney's Office said on Thursday.
Prosecutors said the men created a website similar to that of Moderna, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotechnology company, which received federal approval in December to distribute its Covid-19 vaccine.
The real website is modernatx.com, and the website created by the men that authorities have since confiscated was modernatx.shop. Prosecutors said the fake domain's source code revealed that the creator used a tool to copy the real Moderna website.
"The logo, the markings, colors and texts on the fake domain were visually similar," said a statement from the company's actual homepage. But prosecutors said the bogus website had an addition, "You might be able to purchase a COVID-19 vaccine in advance," with a link to "Contact Us."
The men were caught after an undercover agent contacted the number on the spoofed website on Jan. 11 and completed a transaction for 200 doses of the vaccine for $ 6,000. Officials said the three men never had any cans.
The agent was ordered to transfer half of the money to Mr. Williams' account with the Navy Federal Credit Union. By January 15, agents had confiscated the fake domain and ransacked Mr. Williams' home.
Investigators found texts between Mr. Williams and the cousins discussing the system, according to court documents.
An agent used Mr. Williams' phone to send a message to Odunayo Baba Oluwalade and sent some of the money from the exchange to the cousins, prosecutors said. Her two houses were also soon searched.
It was unclear how much money the men had cheated. A spokeswoman for the US law firm said Friday that she could not provide any further details on the charges than stated in the statement.
A representative from Moderna could not be reached immediately on Friday.
An attorney, Richard Bardos, said he was tasked with Odunayo Baba Oluwalade's case but declined to comment, citing a Maryland law prohibiting lawyers from speaking about ongoing cases.
Jonathan Van Hoven, a lawyer for Mr. Williams, declined to comment. The Maryland District Attorney's Office said Olakitan Oluwalade has not yet been assigned a lawyer.
"As the public searches for vaccines to protect themselves and their families from Covid-19, scammers wait to take advantage of their desperation," said James R. Mancuso, a special agent for Homeland Security Investigations. "We'd like to remind the public to exercise extreme caution online, especially when it comes to Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and protective equipment."