With Mandates Approaching, Demand for Fake COVID-19 Vaccination Cards Explodes

COVID-19

With Mandates Approaching, Demand for Fake COVID-19 Vaccination Cards Explodes

In the weeks since President Biden mandated larger private employers to require their employees be vaccinated or regularly tested, both the supply and demand for fake vaccination cards in the U.S. has skyrocketed. Without a real passport system, experts say the trend will continue to grow.

Photo illustration of a fake vaccination card
Andrew Williams/NBC

What to Know

  • New research shows the cost, number of counterfeiters and buyers increased tremendously on the messaging app Telegram after Biden’s September mandate announcement.
  • Unauthorized use of a government agency’s seal is illegal at the federal level, meaning fake vaccination cards can lead to fines and up to 5 years in prison in addition to local laws.
  • Experts say potential buyers of illegal cards could also be putting their personal information in jeopardy and into the hands of less-than-reputable sellers.

On Sept. 9, President Biden mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for nearly 100 million Americans. The mandate required that all employers with more than 100 workers require them to be vaccinated or tested weekly for the virus in an effort to prevent the surging delta variant.

Following the order, there’s been a surge in both demand and supply of counterfeit COVID-19 vaccination cards across social media, new research shows. According to Check Point Research, the cost, number of counterfeiters and buyers increased tremendously on the messaging app Telegram.

In August, CPR found 1,000 sellers, 15,000 members per Telegram group and the cards selling for around $100. The day after the Biden mandate, those numbers jumped to 10,000 sellers, 85,000 members per group and $200 for a fake card.

Previously, the cards were being sold mainly on the dark web, but Telegram, with its focus on encryption and user privacy, appeals to vendors with its anonymity, reach and scale — making it the perfect platform for the counterfeit groups to thrive all over the world.

What people don’t understand is that these are bad actors and these bad actors are going to look to profit from the poor souls who are thinking they’re doing themselves a favor

Brian Linder, Cybersecurity expert with Check Point Research

Brian Linder, a cybersecurity expert at Check Point Research, said that Telegram has been vague in its response to stop the trend.

“They made a generic statement. They said they had a policy for removing personal data shared without consent,” Linder said. “They are not choosing a political side. They are not going after illegal CDC vaccine cards. They’re making a generic statement about how they try to ensure quality on their platform but by no means are they suggesting that they’re going to try to remove or stop these transactions.”

Unauthorized use of a government agency’s seal is illegal at the federal level, meaning fake vaccination cards can lead to fines and up to 5 years in prison in addition to local laws. But, there are other consequences buyers should be aware of.

Linder said that fake vaccination card vendors are likely to take the personal information given to them to make the cards and resell the data on the dark web to the highest bidder.

“What people don’t understand is that these are bad actors and these bad actors are going to look to profit from the poor souls who are thinking they’re doing themselves a favor,” he said.

With Mandates Approaching, Demand for Fake COVID-19 Vaccination Cards Explodes 1

Getty Images

An example of a digital vaccine passport. The certificate indicates that the holder has been vaccinated against COVID-19 and is verifiable with a QR code.

Currently, the barrier to entry in the fake card business is low, requiring only minimal Photoshop skills, card stock and a printer. As more vaccine requirements come down the pipeline, the fake cards will only increase, according to CPR. Linder said the way to prevent people from faking their vaccination status is with a government-wide, digital system like those implemented by other countries that make verification possible.

China, Israel, Japan, and many in the European Union have implemented vaccine passports that have helped with both verifying vaccination status and driving residents toward real vaccinations. 

Daily Vaccinations per Million People

Countries with strict mandates and verifiable vaccination tracking systems tend to have more daily vaccinations.

Source: Our World in Data – Data as of Oct. 2021

Credit: Andrew Williams/NBC

Israel temporarily lifted their passport requirements and later reinstated them after a surge in cases. Passports are also enforced in parts of the UK like Wales and Scotland.

Compared to countries with verifiable vaccination systems in place, the U.S. is falling behind in vaccinations.

Percentage of Population Fully Vaccinated Against COVID

The U.S. is behind in vaccinations compared to countries with better vaccination tracking systems in place.

Source: Our World in Data – Data as of Oct. 2021

Credit: Andrew Williams/NBC

Some states like New York have tried experimenting with a digitally verifiable vaccine passport, but many conservative states have resisted or have outright banned passports. The governor of Florida, for example, is opposed to any kind of vaccine mandate or tracking. 

Linder says we’re looking at an uphill battle as long as proof of vaccination is being handled at the state level.

“You’re looking at 50 different states all handling it 50 different ways,” Linder said.