by Jenni Bergal for Stateline
More than 150 million Americans have been handed a small white card with a federal logo showing that they’ve been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. In some areas, that card is required to get into concerts, sporting events and workplaces.
But the cards can easily be fabricated by fraudsters and are being sold to people who don’t want to get vaccinated but want to show a record that they have been.
This thriving black market in fake vaccine cards has alarmed law enforcement officials—and prompted some state legislators to act.
In New York, the state Senate and Assembly passed a bill this month that makes it a crime to possess or forge phony COVID-19 vaccine cards or digital passports. The measure will be sent to Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“I can’t think of too many things more despicable than people not wanting to get vaccinated but wanting proof that they were,” said New York Democratic state Assembly member Jeffrey Dinowitz, who sponsored the Assembly bill. “They’re potentially putting people who can’t get the vaccine in harm’s way, like those who are immunocompromised or children under 12. That’s a horrible thing to do.”
In New Jersey, state lawmakers are considering similar legislation.
It’s already a federal crime to buy, use or sell fraudulent documents that bear a federal agency’s seal. Violators face a fine and up to five years in prison. COVID-19 vaccination cards, which feature the recipient’s name and birthdate, the vaccine maker, lot number, and date and place the shot was given, also bear the logo of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But state legislators say it’s unlikely that the FBI and federal prosecutors are going to go after people who commit smaller, individual violations, so pursuing those fraudsters mostly falls to state and local authorities. And if other states join New York in issuing digital vaccine passports, the federal law wouldn’t apply because those documents are created by a state and don’t have a federal agency’s seal.
When asked whether the FBI has made any arrests related to fake vaccine cards, spokesperson Sofia Kettler wrote in an email that the agency “has no new information to provide regarding this topic.”
So far, arrests for schemes related to vaccine cards appear to have been made at the state or local level.
In California, a bar owner in San Joaquin County was arrested in May on charges of selling fake cards after undercover state alcoholic beverage control agents allegedly bought four at $20 apiece.
In New York, Nassau County police arrested a drugstore clerk last month on suspicion of stealing 54 blank vaccine cards and eight other ones that were prefilled and missing only names. Police said he apparently intended to sell them to students and share them with family and friends. He was fired after his arrest.
Some buyers have political or ideological reasons for seeking fake vaccine cards. In April, some people on pro-Trump and anti-vaccine internet forums were sharing instructions on how to forge them, according to NBC News.
New York Democratic state Sen. Anna Kaplan said she sponsored the Senate bill because she wanted to send a message and clearly spell out in state law that it’s a crime to falsify vaccine cards or possess them.
“We’re giving people a card showing they are vaccinated so they can travel, go to stadiums, go to college,” Kaplan said. “We want to make sure that everyone who is vaccinated can go in comfort and know that they are safe. Someone abusing these cards is putting themself and others in harm’s way. They will be held accountable.”
Assembly member Dinowitz said that while some could argue that New York state law already may address such conduct, he filed his bill because he wanted to make sure there’s no question it’s illegal.
“By passing the law, it underlines the importance of this issue,” he said. “I hope other states will follow suit.”
Dinowitz, who worries about this issue in part because his grandchildren are too young to get the vaccine and could be exposed to people who aren’t vaccinated, said he is particularly bothered by what he calls hypocrisy.
“If you refuse to get vaccinated, then don’t get a false card,” he said. “Why would you want to have proof that you got vaccinated?”
Some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination. Those who refuse to get a shot may be denied entry. Just last week, the city of San Francisco announced it would require all 35,000 of its employees to show proof they were fully vaccinated once a vaccine receives full authorization from the federal Food and Drug Administration.
A growing number of colleges also will be requiring proof of vaccination this fall. And it’s been mandatory at some entertainment and sporting events.
Last week, rock band the Foo Fighters played New York’s Madison Square Garden, the first concert there since March 2020. Everyone in the crowd was asked to show proof of vaccination to get in.
In New Jersey, the Senate Judiciary Committee last month passed a bill that would make it a second-degree crime for anyone to knowingly sell, offer or make fake vaccine cards. Violators would face five to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $150,000 or both. Possessing a fake vaccine card would be a fourth-degree crime and violators could get up to 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000 or both.
The measure also would require the state attorney general to develop a COVID-19 vaccine fraud prevention program. A similar bill has been filed in the Assembly.
“We wanted to make it crystal clear that copying or replicating these types of cards would be specifically illegal under New Jersey law,” said Democratic state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, the Senate bill’s chief sponsor. “We want to make sure the penalties are severe enough so people don’t engage in this behavior.”
The Biden administration has said it has no plans for a federal vaccine passport program, but New York has created its own and California recently launched a digital vaccine verification portal.
Other states, such as Idaho and Utah, have banned government entities from requiring vaccine passports, saying they threaten individual freedom and patient privacy.
Much of the activity surrounding phony vaccine cards is taking place online.
In late March, the FBI and other federal agencies issued an alert that fake cards were being advertised on social media websites and e-commerce platforms. The alert advised people not to buy them, make their own cards or fill in blank ones with false information.
“By misrepresenting yourself as vaccinated when entering schools, mass transit, workplaces, gyms, or places of worship, you put yourself and others around you at risk of contracting COVID-19,” the FBI wrote.
The agency also warned that the unauthorized use of a federal government agency’s seal is a crime.
Distribution of the fraudulent documents has been evolving, according to Brian Linder, an emerging threats expert at Check Point Software Technologies, a global cybersecurity company.
“In the beginning, bad actors were selling fake vaccine cards on the dark web,” he said. “Now much of it has migrated to peer-to-peer direct messaging platforms.”
Linder’s company had discovered about 20 direct social media channels in March being used in the United States and other countries to sell fake cards, he said. By May, that number had jumped to more than 100 channels, he said, making fake cards readily accessible to anyone in the market.
“It’s a huge business opportunity for these bad actors to create a profitable situation by selling fake vaccine cards,” he said. “There’s no magic to creating them. You just use Photoshop, you take a pen, you write stuff. There’s a market to buy them.”
Fake vaccine cards sold online aren’t expensive. In April, the Washington Post found listings offering cards for under $11.
Earlier this month, an Amazon vendor was selling 10-packs of blank vaccine cards for $12.99 before the e-commerce giant removed the post, according to NPR. An Amazon spokesperson told NPR that it doesn’t allow such products and that it had taken action against “the bad actors involved in bypassing our controls.”
This spring, the problem drew the attention of state attorneys general.
In April, a bipartisan group of more than 40 members of the National Association of Attorneys General wrote to several e-commerce or social networking companies, warning that their platforms were disseminating deceptive marketing and sales of fake vaccine cards and requesting them to take immediate action to monitor their sites and take down any such ads or links.
Attorneys general regulate commercial transactions in their states and enforce the law against deceptive trade practices. Selling a false vaccine card is by definition deceptive, they say.
“Fake vaccine cards are illegal. It’s against the law to represent that you have a document from the federal government—the CDC—when it isn’t,” North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, said in an interview with Stateline.
Stein, an association vice president who co-chairs its consumer protection committee, said all the companies responded that they were doing their best to monitor their websites and cut off illegal vaccine card sales.
It’s difficult to know how prevalent the problem is, Stein said, but he and his colleagues are prioritizing major online platforms, figuring that if it’s difficult to sell the fake cards there, fewer will be sold.
But Stein noted that it’s also the responsibility of buyers of fake vaccine cards to stop doing it.
“It will increase the number of people who will become sick from COVID and die from COVID, and it extends the time that makes it more likely that variants will spread,” he said. “Instead of paying for a fake card, people should get a real one for free when they get the vaccine. That way they are protected and they are protecting others.”
Republished from June 29 Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts