OAKLAND, Calif. - With more schools, public buildings and businesses requiring proof of vaccination, the market for fake COVID-19 vaccine cards has exploded.
They’re easy to find. They’re cheap to purchase. And they’re a loophole for anyone unvaccinated to cheat the system, according to researchers and government agencies.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers said they’re seizing hundreds of counterfeit cards every day at ports of entry that are coming in from other countries including China, the United Kingdom and Germany.
"We’ve seen the number of actual groups that are advertising these cards grow by over 250% since March," cyber security expert Maya Levine said.
Check Point found hundreds of thousands of people joining those groups in recent weeks. The company found fake certificates selling for $100 or $200 and typically paid for in cryptocurrency, making transactions untraceable.
"If you are someone who doesn’t want to be vaccinated, this is typically an affordable option," Levine said. "[It would] allow yourself the freedom to go wherever you want without having to be vaccinated."
The FBI recently warned that buying, selling or using a counterfeit card is a crime punishable by a fine and up to five years in prison.
In July, a Napa doctor was arrested and accused of selling bogus cards.
But as cities like San Francisco require restaurants, bars, gyms, and other businesses verify vaccination status, the market for fakes is increasing and spotting them is a bigger challenge.
San Francisco Public Health told KTVU that businesses are only being asked to check for a vaccination card, a picture of one, or a QR code. But beyond that, it’s relying on honesty.
The City of San Jose just passed a vaccine requirement in order to enter city-owned public buildings and spaces but has not yet figured out when it will go into effect or how it will be enforced.
Hundreds of colleges and universities across the nation are mandating vaccination proof, too. Usually, it is as simple as uploading a picture of the official CDC vaccination card.
But just like fake IDs, there’s concern college students armed with counterfeit cards could contribute to the spread of COVID-19.
Cyber experts say some of the phony cards contain misspellings, missing words, or logos that don’t look right or are in the wrong place. Also, legitimate cards will contain handwriting and if two or more shots were given, the signatures should look different.
In April, 47 State Attorneys General sent a letter to the CEOs of Twitter, Shopify and eBay asking the companies to take down any ads selling the fake cards.
Still, places to buy them are continually popping up elsewhere.
"Many of these people who are offering these things for sale are scammers," Levine said. "You can send them money and you’ll never receive anything."