As the COVID-19 delta variant spreads and the pandemic shows no signs of slowing down, experts say that people across the world are now having an easier time getting around restrictions related to vaccination status — by purchasing fake vaccine cards online.
“It’s a dire problem, and it’s only increasing,” says Ekram Ahmed, a spokesman for Check Point Software Technologies, a cybersecurity company based in California and Israel.
Recent research published by Ahmed’s company shows the progression of the black market for these fraudulent COVID-19 vaccination cards. Earlier this year, fake certificates were being sold mainly on the dark web for $250 on average, according to a previous report from Check Point. But Ahmed notes in an interview that because people need to be “somewhat tech-savvy” to access services on the dark net, the audience wasn’t “for everyone” at the time.
The market has since shifted. Check Point research released earlier this month shows that fake cards are now being sold through messaging apps such as Telegram — which Ahmed notes is sourced mainly from Russia — and WhatsApp for anywhere between $100 and $120. The volume of online groups advertising the services has multiplied since early 2021, according to the report.
“The affordability has completely changed,” Ahmed adds.
The market is burgeoning months after international officials warned the world about possible scams related to the vaccines. Interpol in December 2020 issued a global alert to law enforcement agencies in its 194 member countries “warning them to prepare for organized crime networks targeting COVID-19 vaccines, both physically and online.” The FBI put out its own alert specifically about fake vaccination cards in late March, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Stateline.
Fake vaccination certificates are not the only types of forgeries available. An Interpol spokesperson said in an email that some member countries “are seeing an increasing number of people attempting to travel with fake negative COVID test results.” Examples were provided out of Africa, Europe and Thailand.
“We are seeing a direct correlation between countries requiring negative COVID tests and increased criminal activity in producing fakes and forgeries,” said the spokesperson, who spoke on condition of not being identified.
Similarly, Ahmed says the proliferation of the certificates could be tied to the increasing number of governments who have started mandating COVID-19 vaccination in order to access goods or services. He says online advertisements use language “specifically for people who do not want to take the vaccine.”
In the United States, 45 state attorneys general recently joined together to call on Twitter, Shopify and eBay to stop the sale of false and stolen vaccine cards, according to The New York Times. That pressure led these larger platforms to start blacklisting certain keywords, according to Saoud Khalifah, the founder and CEO of Fakespot, a company that uses artificial intelligence to detect fraudulent product reviews and third-party sellers online.
Meanwhile, colleges and universities in the U.S. are growing concerned about how easy it is becoming for students to cheat the system related to vaccine mandates, The Associated Press reported. Khalifah says that in July, when music festivals such as Lollapalooza returned and students across the country started preparing to go back to school, online stores selling fake vaccination cards appeared in bigger numbers.
“The problem is that there’s a demand for these services, otherwise they wouldn’t be appearing,” he says. “They are targeting specific user bases, because when you look at the language that these websites are using, they are actually mentioning college students, they are actually talking about, ‘If you want to travel, but you don’t want to get vaccinated, what do you do? You buy this service from us.'”
Ahmed notes, however, that the fake vaccination cards are not only an issue in America. Rather, “it’s very ubiquitous,” he says.
“I can see cards or fake (vaccine) passes or fake (vaccine certificates) for nearly every country on the planet,” Ahmed says, while adding that the “heat of action is coming from Europe.”
Khalifah says websites generally support fake vaccination proof for 20-30 countries — usually the more populous ones. There have also been specific reports of scams out of China, Pakistan and Russia, according to Sharona Hoffman, a professor and the co-director of the Law-Medicine Center at Case Western Reserve University. But Hoffman pinpoints the market for these scams in the U.S. compared to other countries.
“In this country, we may have even more resistance to vaccines than elsewhere,” she says. “So it’s fertile ground because it’s become so politicized here.”
With the U.S. and many other countries continuing to mainly use paper vaccination cards that Ahmed notes are “so easy to copy,” it’s possible that the black market for fake cards will keep growing. But one concerning wrinkle, according to Khalifah, is that scammers are now selling — for a higher price — the ability to enter someone into government or private databases to “prove” inoculation.
“It’s kind of bringing this element of hacking to the public, which we’ve never seen before,” he adds.
With more vaccine mandates being “just right around the corner,” according to Ahmed, there might not be an end in sight for these scams.
“The more pressure that people feel in terms of taking the vaccine, the more the black market, I expect, to proliferate and transact at a higher volume,” he says. “And so it’s sort of like there’s this seesaw effect kind of going on … I just expect the problem to get worse.”
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Global Black Market for Fake COVID-19 Vaccination Cards Flourishing originally appeared on usnews.com