Investigations multiply and European media continue to report new scams every day: Fake Covid vaccine passes are spreading throughout the continent — thanks mainly to online promotions.
Like so many illicit activities, the trend that began months ago has found its most fertile breeding grown on the “dark web,” as thousands of operators offer fake documents around the world.
“A hidden pandemic market advertising fake vaccine and test certificates for as little as £25 has grown exponentially,” reports The Guardian.
While some of the platforms pushing fake passes have political objectives and seek customers looking to protest governments mandates, many others are in it purely for profit.
“Anti-vaxxers – individuals who refuse to take the vaccine on the grounds of baseless conspiracy theories and spread dangerous disinformation – are among those buying the forged certificates,” according to the paper.
Optimists versus pessimists
The hope for some optimistic observers is that as European Union countries each announce plans to lift Covid restrictions and establish future dates to drop all coronavirus-related measures, the flourishing business of selling fake passes will come to a natural end.
Switzerland, for example, has announced that Covid certificates are not longer needed to enter bars, restaurants or other indoor venues. The Netherlands is to lift most measures by February 25, with bars returning to normal hours and masks no longer compulsory in most settings, while Norway and Denmark have lifted all measures, declaring coronavirus “no longer a major health threat.”
Austria and Germany also have announced plans to lift most Covid curbs.
Lifting restrictions and making vaccination mandatory
A more pessimistic reality looms as other E.U. countries schedule dates down the road when most Covid-related rules will end but unvaccinated people will still face restrictions as various countries plan to make vaccination mandatory.
Earlier this month, Austria became the first in Europe to do so while a compulsory-vaccination law is pending in Germany’s Parliament.
Germany is planning “freedom day” for March 20 and Austria on March 5.
The E.U. has recommended that from this month on, anyone traveling within the bloc will need only a “basic green pass” health certificate, which can be obtained via vaccination, recovery, or a recent negative Covid test — and removimg the need for self-isolation.
It also has proposed that E.U. Covid Digital Certificates should be in use until at least June 30, 2023.
That means a golden opportunity for the market in forgeries, which in many cases can be used across the E.U.
Creating a demand for forgeries
In Spain, for example, police have found international criminal gangs dedicated to selling fake Covid passports online for as much as €200 or €300.
“Spanish police detained seven suspected members of an international criminal gang that created and sold forged Covid-19 passports and negative tests,” Reuters reported.
“The Spanish arm of the ring, which advertised its services on “anti-vax” instant message groups, fraudulently added at least 1,600 people to the national vaccination register with the help of health workers, the investigation found.”
E.U. countries agreed last year to create a standardized Covid certificate with a QR code so that vaccinated and tested people could travel and attend events, creating the demand for the phony certificates.
While gradually lifting Covid restrictions, Spain has maintained the Covid-19 pass as a requirement for travel to and from the country while leaving decisions on domestic restrictions such as those related to restaurants, bars and museums, among other activities, to local governments.
“Although more and more regions are getting rid of its usage, it may not be completely scrapped for domestic matters altogether,” according to The Local.
Online offers from international forgers include Covid vaccine certificates for €200-1,000, depending on the country, and sent within two days of payment. A negative PCR test can be had for €50.
Selling fakes online
In addition to Spain, news outlets in Germany, Austria, Italy, France, Eastern Europe and the Balkan countries report fakes sold on Instagram and Facebook €100-500, sometimes payable in cryptocurrency.
Last month, Polish media reported the arrests of a priest, a nurse and a number of soldiers, among others, trading in false Covid-19 vaccination certificates for the equivalent of €22-221.
Ukraine, according to Politico, has developed a sophisticated Covid-pass racket: “Take some beating war drums, add visa-free travel, and throw in a black market for forged Covid certificates and what do you get? Ukraine.”
As the high stakes of geopolitical negotiations proceeds in fits and starts and the danger of war looms over the country, “law enforcement authorities have uncovered a series of underground operations to forge vaccination and test certificates,” Politico adds.
“Official video footage of the raids typically show officers detaining medical staff and other suspects at their workplaces, along with stacks of forged documents, lists of clients and bundles of cash — domestic and foreign currencies. Around 2,300 investigations into suspected forgery rackets have been opened, the Health Ministry said.”
Anti-vaxers and other clients
New research by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) documents that anti-vaxers in France are buying fake vaccine passes online often promoted on mainstream social media platforms.
Many purchasers of the forgeries, which can be used across the E.U. are being redirected from Instagram and Facebook, among other platforms, to the Telegram-encrypted messenger where they can be bought discreetly, according to the study.
“For months, ISD analysts have watched the sale and promotion of fake health passes across both fringe and mainstream social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Telegram and Snapchat,” the researchers found.
“As the largest platform in France, the prominence of fake passes on Facebook is of particular concern. Users can find fake passes for sale on Facebook itself as well as being directed to other platforms, including more extreme spaces.
The promotion of fake health passes largely takes place in closed groups organised around anti-vaxxers and other Covid-19 or vaccine protest movements, with users advertising fake QR codes for sale through direct messaging, other Facebook accounts, or public channels and private accounts on Telegram.”
Faking goes large-scale for wider audiences
The study also raises alarms over the scale of the promotion and sale of forgeries as a result of the reach of these platforms.
“The French government last month gave approval for a vaccine pass that excludes unvaccinated people from restaurants, sports arenas and other venues,” The Guardian reports. “That has made acquiring a fake pass, which can be used across the E.U. member states, more desirable for anti-vaxxers.”
Border officials across the E.U. report detection of travelers brandishing fake test certificate by the hundreds each day. Europol, the E.U.’s cross-border law enforcement agency, repeatedly has warned that scammers are producing and selling fake negative coronavirus test certificates in airports, train stations and online around Europe.
But, experts believe that most of the forgeries go undetected.
ISD is calling for more accountability for social media companies, including Snapchat, Meta – which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp – and Telegram, as well as for legislation to protect users.