Patients across the UK are being targeted by a Covid-19 scam offering false hope of a vaccine amid the current surge in infections.
Victims are sent a text purporting to be from the National Health Service inviting them to provide bank account details before making an appointment to be immunised.
Police and the Chartered Trading Standards Institute have issued urgent warnings advising patients they would never be asked for their bank details.
UK citizens are being asked to await contact from health officials to arrange vaccination.
“It’s important not to contact the NHS for a vaccination before then,” the NHS England’s website says.
Fraudsters are exploiting the edict by sending fake NHS text messages to patients with a link to a website asking for their personal details.
Katherine Hart, lead officer at CTSI, said the con came to light in December after the vaccination programme started but has since become widespread.
“The vaccine brings great hope for an end to the pandemic and lockdowns, but some only wish to create even further misery by defrauding others," she said.
“The NHS will never ask you for banking details, passwords or pin numbers and these should serve as instant red flags.”
She said the first cases emerged in the Western Isles of Scotland but are “by no means limited to the region”.
"This is the latest in a series of scams themed around the pandemic in circulation since last March. With the UK vaccine rollout under way, scammers have modified their scam to consider this new development," she said.
Police across the country have tweeted warnings about the con.
“Please be alert around scam text messages/cold calls telling you that you are eligible for a Covid vaccine, do not provide your payment details or any personal details in links attached," Hackney Police in east London said.
“Criminals are already taking advantage of the #Covid19 #vaccine," Greater Manchester Police said on its Facebook page.
Another Covid-19 text message con was circulating on Monday following Prime Minister Boris Johnson's announcement of a third national lockdown for England.
Bogus messages claimed people were eligible for a £240 support grant from the UK's welfare agency.
"From HMRC: The third lockdown has been announced, we have been issued a grant of £240 to help during this period, visit to claim," it read.
However, after clicking on the link people were directed to a webpage containing spelling mistakes and grammatical errors.
There have also been incidents of fake vaccines for sale, with fraudsters claiming they can deliver shots within days for as little as $110.
On the messaging app Telegram, fraudsters are offering the Moderna vaccine for $180, Pfizer/BioNTech’s for $150 and Oxford/AstraZeneca’s for $110 a vial.
Asked how the vaccines would be shipped, the account creator said they were transported in “regulated temperature packs” and ice packs within a few days, or overnight for an additional charge.
“Patients should never try to secure a vaccine online – no legitimate vaccine is sold online – and only get vaccinated at certified vaccination centres or by certified healthcare providers,” a Pfizer spokesman said.
Other scams include emails promising entry to supposedly secret lists for early vaccine access in return for a fee and robo-callers impersonating government agencies.
Website domains containing the word vaccine in combination with Covid-19 or coronavirus have more than doubled since October to roughly 2,500.
“So far, a lot of these domains just appear to be opportunistic registrations but some are going to be used for phishing attempts to have people click on [malicious] links,” said Lindsay Kaye of Recorded Future.
Since March, criminals across Europe have been taking advantage of the pandemic.
A report by crime agency Europol in December warned further lockdowns could see organised crime thrive.
"In the short term, the return of strict lockdown measures may present a situation similar to the start of the pandemic," it said.
"In this scenario, criminal activities will continue to exploit the situation and various crime schemes may become more sophisticated in order to counter the increased public awareness of crime threats during the pandemic."
The use of new technologies and online activities in serious and organised crime will be further accelerated, Europol said.
But in the longer term, an enduring economic downturn could trigger serious and organised crime to flourish.
"Corruption may increase, and fraud and financial crime schemes may proliferate," it said.
"Certain types of counterfeit goods will be subject to increased demand.
"Overall, organised crime structures operating in the EU may benefit from the situation and could emerge stronger."
In August 2020, European customs agencies intercepted, seized or returned more than 8.5 million masks without the required certification or presenting other irregularities.
The trafficking of infrared thermometers and disinfectant gel is increasing, Europol has warned.
A few months ago, a raid on a warehouse belonging to an organised crime gang involved was found to contain 53,000 counterfeit products and more than 1.1 million medical masks of unknown origin and without customs documents.
Several types of telephone fraud schemes have also been reported to Europol, specifically targeting the elderly.
"This includes calls to victims by criminals claiming to be healthcare officials and demanding payments on behalf of a relative supposedly undergoing medical treatment," Europol said.
"In some cases, criminals impersonating police officers have issued on-the-spot fines to members of the public wearing masks."