COVID-19 vaccine mandates across the U.S. and Europe have created a market for counterfeit proof of vaccination.
In the U.S., which lacks a single federal digital card, illegal certificates have been sold online through sites like eBay, Amazon, and Etsy, as well as social media sites, encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram, and the dark web. “As a segment of the population tries to avoid the new measures, the dark net reacts to the real market and thus demand gives birth to offers,” said Dmitry Galov, a researcher at cybersecurity firm Kaspersky.
In addition, a licensed homeopathic doctor in California was arrested for providing fake U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) vaccination cards that claimed patients had received the Moderna vaccine. Also in California, a bar owner was arrested and charged with identity theft, forging government documents, and falsifying medical records in May for selling counterfeit cards at $20 each. The cards issued by the CDC are easily forged and were never intended to be used as the main source of proof.
The E.U. uses a more secure format, but still isn’t immune to counterfeiting. Although its 27 member countries each distribute their own vaccination cards with slight variations, they all use the same digital technology, with a dedicated QR code for each person. For example, social media profiles purported to sell fake certificates are popping up in Italy, advertising digital and printed versions as well as “family packs” available for purchase with cryptocurrencies, through PayPal, or with Amazon gift cards. About 500 have been sold in the past few months in Italy, according to Ivano Gabrielli, an Italian police commander who oversees online fraud investigations. As of mid-July, French police identified 400 buyers of fake certificates, and believe the actual number could be three times higher.
Demand for the fake documents increased dramatically in Germany after the country added restrictions for unvaccinated people. “Sellers are nimble, ready to satisfy demand that has ebbed and flowed with restrictions,” said Miro Dittrich, a researcher at the Center for Monitoring, Analysis, and Strategy in Germany. “One of the bitcoin wallets connected to a dealer of fake certificates had $20,000 in it. He could have been selling other stuff too like guns or drugs, we can’t be sure, but likely at least some of that came from the certificates.”