Fake Covid Vaccination Cards Increase

MILAN—As Covid-19 vaccine mandates proliferate in the US and Europe, so do fraudsters selling fake vaccination certificates.


U.S. government said federal workers must be vaccinated or subject to routine testing, mask requirements and social distancing. California requires state employees to be vaccinated or tested at least once a week. New York state will soon follow and New York City plans to request proof of vaccination for customers and staff at restaurants and gyms.


Entrepreneurs like Walt Disney Co., Walmart Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Tyson Foods Inc. require vaccination of at least some of their employees.


Proof of vaccination is required in some parts of the US and Europe for eating indoors, going to museums, and attending major sporting events.


The spread of the rule has created a market for fake certificates for the unvaccinated. In recent weeks, schemes to sell proof of illegal vaccinations have multiplied on social media sites, messaging apps like Telegram and on the dark web, according to government investigators and cybersecurity experts.


“When segments of the population try to evade new measures, the dark network reacts to the real market and thus demand breeds supply,” said Dmitry Galov, a researcher at cybersecurity firm Kaspersky who has tracked the sale of fake certificates. since March.


In the US, fake vaccination cards purportedly issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have appeared for sale on sites such as Amazon, eBay, and Etsy. In May, officers arrested a bar owner in California for allegedly selling fake vaccination cards for $20 each. The alleged perpetrator was charged with identity theft, falsification of government documents and falsification of medical records.


"While we don't have exact figures, we are seeing more schemes of this kind recently," a Justice Department spokesman said.


Trading is not only online. Last month, the Justice Department arrested a licensed homeopathic doctor in California for allegedly selling patients what he called Covid immunization pellets. He then gave him a fake CDC vaccination card that said the patient had received the Moderna vaccine. He also gave some patients blank cards and instructions on how to fraudulently fill them in by entering certain Moderna vaccine lot numbers.


In the U.S., the absence of a single federal digital card makes the job of fraudsters much easier. Small white cards issued by the CDC are easily counterfeit and are not intended as a primary source of proof of vaccination, according to security experts.


The European Union has a digital certificate with a special QR code for each person. While the 27 member states distribute their own vaccination cards, meaning there are variations in the format and where they are received, they use the same technology and there is consensus on how the cards should be issued and used.


Originally considered a means to facilitate travel between EU countries, certificates are now used to ensure relative safety in situations such as indoor dining. The original certificate proves that a person has been vaccinated, recently tested negative for Covid-19 or has recovered from the disease.


Despite the more secure format, fake versions of EU digital certificates have multiplied. In Italy, there are about 30 social media profiles claiming to sell fake certificates, about 500 of which have been sold in recent months, according to Ivano Gabrielli, an Italian police commander who oversees online fraud investigations. Telegram is the main platform used for the sale of counterfeit certificates, he said.


“Sellers try to spread the word by posting obscure information on well-known social media platforms, but their goal is to get you to migrate to an encrypted messaging app,” says Gabrielli.


A Telegram spokesman said the company had shut down channels selling fake certificates when requested by the Italian government.


When channels offering fake certificates are closed, new ones quickly appear with the same offer.


"At least by closing the account, we have stopped the phenomenon for a while," said Eugenio Fusco, the Milan prosecutor who investigated the fake certificate.


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The Italian channel on Telegram currently advertises a digital version of the vaccine certificate for €100, the equivalent of $118, and a printed copy for €120. The “family package” of four tickets can be purchased for €300 for the digital version and €350 for the hard copy. Passes can be paid for in cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and in some cases via PayPal or with Amazon gift cards.


The number of fake sales increased significantly after Italy announced digital certificates would be required for some events and trips, Gabrielli said. It is unlikely that fake certificates will face serious scrutiny unless hackers break into national vaccination databases and alter the data there, a much more serious and technically challenging type of cybercrime, he said.


In France, authorities recently filed preliminary charges against six people for fraud in connection with the manufacture and sale of fake Covid-19 vaccination cards, according to prosecutors.


By mid-July, French police had identified 400 buyers of fake vaccine cards and said the real number could be three times higher, according to French press reports.


Making or buying fake documents of any kind, such as vaccination certificates, is punishable in France with a fine of up to €45,000 and three years in prison. The new law coming into effect in the coming days also includes specific penalties for presenting or offering any documents based on fraud tests or vaccination records.


Fake certificates were first offered in Germany on the dark web, but there were no buyers, said Miro Dittrich, a researcher at the Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy in Germany. Once Germany added restrictions for the unvaccinated and sellers migrated to Telegram, both supply and demand exploded, he said.


“Agile sellers, ready to meet ebb and flow demand with restrictions,” said Mr. Dittrich. “One of the bitcoin wallets linked to a fake certificate dealer had $20,000 in it. He could have been selling other items too like weapons or drugs, we're not sure, but it's likely that at least some of them came from certificates."


Mr. Galov, from Kaspersky, warns that buyers of counterfeit certificates may not get anything useful.


“Over the years, people have been selling all kinds of fake documents—like diplomas or medical certificates,” Galov said. “Some of the scams we've seen offer codes or certificates similar to the old ones, because they often don't provide anything—they just leave the user with no money or paperwork.”