Three Baltimore men have been accused by federal prosecutors of putting up a fake website to sell Covid-19 vaccines for $30 a dose, prosecutors say.
The men, Olakitan Oluwalade, 22, and Odunayo Baba Oluwalade, 25, who are cousins, and Kelly Lamont Williams, 22, each face a charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland said on Thursday.
Prosecutors said the men created a website that resembled that of Moderna, the biotechnology company based in Cambridge, Mass., that in December won federal approval to distribute its Covid-19 vaccine.
The genuine website is modernatx.com, and the website created by the men, which the authorities have since seized, was modernatx.shop. Prosecutors said the source code of the fake domain showed that its creator had used a tool to copy the real Moderna website.
“The logo, markings, colors and texts on the fake domain were visually similar” to the company’s actual home page, officials said in a statement. But prosecutors said the fake website had an addition: “YOU MAY BE ABLE TO BUY A COVID-19 VACCINE AHEAD OF TIME,” with a link to “Contact us.”
The men were caught after an undercover agent contacted the number on the fake website on Jan. 11 and set up a transaction for 200 doses of the vaccine for $6,000, according to the statement. Officials said the three men never actually had any doses.
The agent was instructed to transfer half of the funds to Mr. Williams’s account at the Navy Federal Credit Union, and by Jan. 15 agents had seized the fake domain and searched Mr. Williams’s home.
Investigators found texts between Mr. Williams and the cousins discussing the scheme, according to court documents.
An agent used Mr. Williams’s phone to send a message to Odunayo Baba Oluwalade and sent some of the money from the exchange to the cousins, prosecutors said. Both of their homes were soon searched, too.
It was unclear how much money the men defrauded people of. A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office said Friday that she could not provide more details about the charges beyond what was in the statement.
A representative for Moderna could not be immediately reached on Friday.
A lawyer, Richard Bardos, said he had been assigned to Odunayo Baba Oluwalade’s case but declined to comment further, citing a Maryland law that prohibits lawyers from speaking about ongoing cases.
Jonathan Van Hoven, a lawyer for Mr. Williams, declined to comment. The Office of the Federal Public Defender for the District of Maryland said Olakitan Oluwalade had not yet been assigned a lawyer.
“As the public seeks vaccines to protect themselves and their families from Covid-19, fraudsters are waiting to take advantage of their desperation,” said James R. Mancuso, a special agent from Homeland Security Investigations. “We want to remind the public to exercise extreme caution online, especially when it comes to Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and protective equipment.”