First, people cheated to receive a COVID vaccine shot. Now, they cheat to not get one.
As some venues, businesses, workplaces, and gatherings of all kinds ask for vaccination proof, people who wish to avoid the shot are turning to the black market to buy vaccination documents.
In April, the National Association of Attorneys General asked eBay, Shopify, and Twitter to prevent users from selling counterfeit Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccine cards on their platforms. It looks like these companies took it seriously: Searching in early July, I couldn’t find any posts advertised the cards. The New York Times reported in April that the cards were sold on Etsy and Facebook as well. I was able to find one listing on Etsy with blank vaccine cards last week, but several days after, it was unavailable.
However, there is at least one place where scammers are still selling illegal certificates: Telegram. The messaging app, created by Russian developer Pavel Durov, has more than 500 million users from around the globe. Messages on the app are securely encrypted, and Telegram’s lack of willingness to cooperate with law enforcement or shut down channels has made it attractive to criminals, including scammers. Telegram recently added a feature that made it possible to buy and sell items through the app directly, allowing users to send cryptocurrency or direct transfers to bank accounts in direct messages. I did a dive into what is advertised for sale on Telegram, and it turned out that it is possible to buy almost anything—from pizza to travel packages, to vaccine cards as well.
It only took me several seconds to discover three channels—essentially, streams of information and updates that anyone can search for, and subscribe to—advertising fake vaccine records in English. One of them, “Covid19 vaccine cards certificate” has more than 400,000 followers. I reached out to the channel owner pretending to be a buyer and figured out that the CDC vaccine card, filled in with my information, would cost $200. (That’s nearly 200 times more expensive than cards were going for on Amazon in June, as NPR found; those cards have since been removed.) The Telegram channel owner told me that the cards are authentic, writing: “We have professional and licensed doctors working with us who are deep in the game and have access to all the medical databases.” The author of another channel, “COVID19 Vaccine cards” (with 80,000 followers), indicated the same price: $100 per blank card, and $200 per registered one. “I get a doctor register whatever info on the card into the CDC system so it will be as [if] you are vaccinated,” says the vendor.
The cards themselves could indeed be authentic. As the April New York Times report explains, some of the black market cards are forged, but some are stolen from hospitals. In June, a nonclinical contract employee was charged with the theft of more than 500 blank vaccine cards from the mass inoculation site in California where he worked. What’s harder to tell is if scammers in the U.S. and elsewhere really have access to databases with vaccinated people, and the ability to add in new names—that promise seems a little far-fetched. I reached out to the managers of one of the Russian channels on Telegram, which offers to deliver illegal papers to the buyer without visiting a doctor; it has more than 300,000 subscribers. I asked how they add information to the state system, and the responses I got were not very consistent. First, the managers said that they hacked the database. Later, they answered that they cooperate with doctors. It doesn’t seem like a trustworthy system. On top of that, the instructions they provide ask clients to provide personal information to fill in documents—who knows how else they are going to use it.
Still, fake vaccination documents that are not reflected in any databases can work in some cases. In Israel, a system of vaccine passports or so-called green passes was in place until June, when the government removed almost all coronavirus restrictions, including vaccine passes. (Recently, Israel has reimposed some measures after a rise in COVID cases, but so far, vaccine passports are still no longer required.) But before that, there was a period of time when residents were required to show green passes, which served as proof of vaccination, to attend restaurants, bars, theaters, and other venues. The passes included QR codes that can be scanned to prove their validity. It turned out that the bar codes could be easily forged with the help of free online tools. According to the Times of Israel, Telegram channels were selling fake QR codes to those who wanted to get access to public spaces without getting vaccinated.
Sometimes, the vaccination certificates do really reflect the official database. In Russia, there are reports of scammers falsely adding people to the official vaccination record. The scheme is a little complicated and involves more than handing over money. A doctor who has been involved in the sale of vaccine certificates in Moscow anonymously told the Moskovskij Komsomolets newspaper how it works. The buyer shows up at the hospital, fills in papers like for the real vaccination, and is examined by a physician, who is in on the fake case. Then the nurse opens the vaccine vial, pours it out, and attaches the serial number of the shot to the name of the patient in the database. Then, the person comes back later for a (faked) second shot, and the process happens again. Sounds barbaric amid the fact that people in many countries desperately need those doses, doesn’t it? According to the newspaper, the vaccine certificate costs up to $200.
Who would go through all that trouble for a fake shot? Along with selling illegal cards, channels on Telegram spread false information about COVID vaccines that might urge someone to get a fake card, like the idea that the vaccines have more negative than positive effects on health and that they might cause menstrual problems (doctors have commented on these reports, saying that there is no reason to worry), an inflammation of the heart muscle (the World Health Organization has noted that these cases are very rare, less than 50 per 1 million doses), cancer (experts say this is a myth), and even death (the CDC says that no link between the COVID vaccine and death has been established). “Stay away from the vaccine and be safe while we continue this fight,” says one of the Telegram channels. Thus, the target audience of fake certificates is not only anti-vaxxers, but people who are still hesitant.
And buying an officially registered vaccine certificate that’s reflected in a database can make it harder to change your mind. A Russian paramedic told the BBC that he was required to get vaccinated by his employer, but he was concerned about the safety of the vaccine and paid for a certificate. After his mom died from COVID, the paramedic decided he did want to get a jab; however, his papers reflect that he was inoculated already. In Kazakhstan, the buyers of registered vaccine certificates face the same problem. The local media, Tengrinews, shared a story of a young man whose parents bought three vaccine passes, for themselves and him, for the equivalent of $100. The parents didn’t ask for their son’s opinion, thinking that they were doing him a favor. Now the man wants to receive a shot, and he can’t.
There are more possible consequences to getting a card on the black market. Authorities of countries where scams have been revealed keep reminding people that not only producing and selling vaccine records is a crime, but that using them is as well. In Israel, anybody caught with a forged vaccine document can be fined the equivalent of $1,500. In Russia, producers of fake documents could face up to two years of jail; users, one year. In the U.S., both sellers and buyers of illegal vaccine cards can be punished with up to five years in prison or a fine. The purchase of fake inoculation documents is pricey and risky. Isn’t it easier to just get a free shot?