COVID

Maryland man pleads guilty to operating fake Moderna website, charging people to buy advance vaccines

On Friday, Odunayo "Baba" Oluwalade pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud conspiracy in connection with the scheme.

In this Tuesday, July 27, 2021, photo, a medical worker prepares a shot of the Moderna vaccine. Joseph Odelyn / AP, File


The website was almost identical.

When a user loaded the homepage, Moderna’s name and logo were displayed at the top of the site, along with a tab explaining how mRNA technology works.

Some visiting the page would have been convinced that it was Moderna’s official website. But two details gave the fake site away, federal prosecutors said: a rectangle that read “You may be able to buy a covid-19 vaccine ahead of time. Contact us,” and its domain, “Modernatx.shop.”

Moderna’s actual website had no such message promoting the advance sale of coronavirus vaccines, and its official URL was “Modernatx.com.”

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On Friday, Odunayo “Baba” Oluwalade – one of three men accused of using the fake website to sell coronavirus vaccines at $30 per dose – pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud conspiracy in connection with the scheme.

Oluwalade, a Maryland resident, pleaded to conspiring with others to obtain access to a bank account used in the fraud scheme. Oluwalade, 25, also admitted that he knew the bank account would be used for a fraud scheme, though he denied being aware of the specifics, the U.S. attorney’s office in the District of Maryland said in a statement.

Neither Oluwalade nor his attorney immediately responded to messages from The Washington Post late Sunday.

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Authorities have charged multiple people with participating in vaccine and vaccination card schemes. In December, as many Americans raced to get their shots, a Wisconsin pharmacist was charged with deliberately spoiling more than 500 doses of the coronavirus vaccine. In January, a Texas pharmacist was charged with theft by a public servant for distributing 10 leftover Moderna doses before the vial expired. That charge was later dismissed.

In the following months, as some tried to evade immunization requirements, authorities seized thousands of counterfeit vaccine cards destined for several locations across the U.S. and accused multiple people of selling unauthorized vaccination cards. In September, a Michigan nurse was charged with stealing and selling authentic vaccination cards. State troopers, a pharmacist, an Instagram user and a bar owner, among others, have also been charged in connection with separate fake vaccination card sales.

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Federal investigators became aware of the fake Moderna website on Jan. 11, court records state. That day, an undercover Homeland Security Investigations agent reached out to the phone number listed on the page. Someone reached at that number, which was linked to a WhatsApp account, replied about two hours later, asking the agent to provide an email address where they could be contacted, according to the criminal complaint.

Minutes after the undercover agent provided an email address, court records state, the agent received a welcome email from [email protected] detailing how the company stored its vaccines, court records state.

After exchanging several emails with the fake company’s email address, prosecutors said, the agent received an email from a Google email address with payment, delivery and purchase information. The agent then received an invoice for 200 doses of the vaccine at $30 per dose, totaling $6,000, half of which they were to pay up front and the rest, upon delivery. The agent transferred part of the funds as instructed.

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Three days later, court records state, a judge authorized the seizure of the fake domain. Authorities also executed a search warrant targeting the defendant accused of owning the bank account where the funds of the fake vaccine sales were transferred, court records said. They used the man’s cellphone to send Oluwalade a text message reading, “Yo where u want me send the bread?” referring to the money the undercover agent had sent to the account provided.

“Yea send me some thru zelle and some through cash app,” Oluwalade replied.

Federal authorities arrested Oluwalade on Feb. 11, court records show. A magistrate judge later released him on bond, although Oluwalade was required to surrender his passport, maintain his home address and refrain from contacting the two other men charged in the scheme.

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Oluwalade faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for the wire fraud conspiracy. A judge has not yet scheduled a sentencing date.

The cases of the two other defendants charged in connection with the scheme – Oluwalade’s cousin, Olakitan “Olaki” Oluwalade, and another man, Kelly Lamont Williams – remain pending, court records show. Neither the men nor their attorneys immediately responded to messages from The Post.

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