China’s Paxlovid cyber scams are everywhere

Similar scams are, perhaps unsurprisingly, incredibly prevalent within China right now, and in the days since my messages with Jin, I’ve talked with several Chinese people who have been caught up in scams after they searched on social media for Paxlovid.

Liao, a Chinese woman in Shenzhen who asked that we only use her last name, was desperate when her father, a 54-year-old with preexisting conditions, was admitted to the hospital for covid on December 28 and almost lost consciousness the next day. When the doctor suggested Paxlovid but told her the hospital didn’t have any left, she went on the popular social media platform Xiaohongshu to post her call for help.

Soon people started messaging her to say they could sell her Paxlovid. One account claimed it had the Pfizer version (as opposed to the generic version produced in other countries) and could ship the medicine the same day. She paid the asking price of 3,600 yuan (about $530) without hesitation. 

Yet the promised medicine never came, and the account she paid later deactivated. She reported it to the police but was told the chance of getting her money back is low. Luckily, Liao’s father has stabilized and no longer needs the medicine.

Liao is not the only victim. Another person who lives in Hubei tells me she met a scammer on Weibo and has since found out that he deceived at least 30 people out of nearly $30,000. The victims have formed a group chat to coordinate what they can do, and the scammer’s account remains active on Weibo even though it’s been reported repeatedly. It’s still posting photos of Paxlovid, looking for new targets. 

“There aren’t many Paxlovid left today. DM me if you need it. #fight against the pandemic# #paxlovid#”

Even those who are lucky enough to find sellers who are not scammers still need to deal with other forms of deception—like counterfeit drugs and theft (since the package is labeled with the name of the medication). And some people have turned to generic alternatives to Paxlovid, like Primovir or Paxista, that are made by Indian pharmaceutical companies and are questionable in terms of efficacy; some labs in China have examined samples of these generic drugs and found no effective ingredients.

It’s the immense challenges in accessing Paxlovid in the first place that have made all this fraudulent activity possible. A lot of Chinese people are scared and anxious, and some have probably put too much stock in the power of Paxlovid. Most of them are not equipped with the knowledge of who should take Paxlovid or how to take it without risks, but they are just trying to find anything that could help a little bit.

Of course, this isn’t the first time scammers have taken advantage of desperate individuals; online scammers are always ready, in China and elsewhere, to profit from fears and emergencies. But questions remain about whether social media platforms like Twitter and Weibo are doing enough to curtail such activities and regain users’ trust. 

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