As the Delta variant of the coronavirus continues to sweep the nation, thousands of counterfeit COVID-19 vaccine cards have started to flood the United States.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents report they have now seized more than 121 shipments containing more than 3,000 counterfeit COVID-19 vaccine cards. The agency said agents have intercepted the shipments at the port of Memphis, Tennessee – all of them from China and bound for different cities across the nation.
Disguised as paper greeting cards in packs of 20, 51 or 100, the counterfeit cards look like real vaccination certificates, including spaces where the recipient can write their name, birth date and vaccine information. While they look legitimate, complete with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention logo, the cards are often littered with typos, unfinished words, and even misspelled Spanish words, in some cases.
In addition to the recent surge in these fraudulent online purchases, officials are also combating citizens who are capitalizing on public fear, misinformation, religious beliefs, and strong personal resistance to getting the vaccine. Recently, a licensed pharmacist in Chicago was arrested for allegedly selling authentic Covid-19 vaccination cards on eBay, according to the Justice Department.
Falsifying COIVD Vaccination Certifications is a Crime
The FBI has a stern warning for the public- buying, selling, or using a counterfeit COVID-19 vaccination card is a crime. A punishable one.
In a statement the FBI categorized the unauthorized use of an official government agency’s seal (such as HHS or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)) as a crime. Citing this as an act that could be “punishable under Title 18 United States Code, Section 1017, and other applicable laws,” and added “do not buy fake vaccine cards, do not make your own vaccine cards, and do not fill-in blank vaccination record cards with false information.”
In addition, the FBI has urged the public to not post photos of their vaccine cards to social media websites, citing “personal information could be stolen to commit fraud.”
A Growing Concern Among College Officials
There is growing concern among many colleges and universities in the U.S., who require proof of COVID-19 vaccination for students to begin in-person instruction, with some universities placing a hold on acceptance into the institution until the student’s documents have been verified. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, at least 664 colleges and universities now require proof of COVID-19 vaccination.
However, the mandatory requirement has faculty and students concerned about how easy it is for students and their parents to get fake vaccine cards to “cheat the system,” according to a widely shared report by the Associated Press. With just a few clicks, one can search sites like Instagram, Twitter, and TikTiok for users selling “COVID-19 Vaccine Card Certificates,” to purchase illegally online.
One might ask, why would students or parents pay for fake vaccination cards and face expulsion or criminal charges, when they could easily get a free COVID-19 vaccine? Again, misinformation, religious beliefs and personal choice are often the answer and unfortunately, “the science of good public health has gotten lost in some of the decisions that have been made in some places,” according to Dr. Sarah Van Orman, the chief health officer at the University of Southern California and COVID-19 task force member for the American College Health Association.
Retail Struggles on Consensus to Protect Workers and Customers
While the Federal Trade Commission says vaccination cards were “not designed to be long-term proof of Covid vaccinations,” the discovery of fraudulent cards comes as more and more businesses and entertainment venues are requiring proof of vaccination to enter.
Starting in September, New York City will become the first city in the United States to require proof of at least one dose of the COVID vaccine to participate in activities ranging from indoor dining, gyms, and performances. However, large-format restaurant chains are taking a variety of approaches.
McDonald’s now requires its workers, as well as customers, to wear masks in identified “high-risk” areas. Walmart, Target, and others are requiring workers to wear masks but only “recommending” that customers do too, in high-risk areas.
Additionally, major nationwide retailers like Gap and Walgreens are requiring corporate employees to be fully vaccinated as they aim to return to the office. The largest private employer in the nation, Walmart, hopes that requiring vaccination of their corporate staff will convince more retail workers to get the shots.
Larry Lynch, senior vice president of science and industry for the National Restaurant Association, recently stated: “We want to stick with the message that strongly encourages everybody to get vaccinated, but don’t want to create a situation where employees basically have a risk of physical assault, because it happened last year. That’s our biggest fear.”
David French, senior vice president of government relations at the National Retail Federation, echoes this concern and believes vaccine mandates for customers is not the “right step” for retail chains, as they would not be able to enforce such mandates. “Store employees are not trained to be security enforcement people,” he said. “What do you do if someone says they’re coming in and not going to show their vaccination status?”
There is Limited Technology to Assist Retailers
As the COVID landscape consistently changes, there are other barriers to vaccine requirements for customers to overcome, aside from safety concerns.
Many retail stores “don’t have any experience with requiring things like an ID to come into a store,” French said. The thought here is that it would hurt the quality of customer service, through constantly scrutinizing shoppers’ vaccine status.
Unfortunately, limited technology is in place for retailers to easily check customers’ vaccine status nationwide, he said. “There are some real practical problems with requiring vaccination status to enter a retail store,” he said. “It’s something a lot of retailers are scratching their heads at.”
People do have options (although somewhat limited). Vaccine passport apps like Clear Health Pass, VeriFLY, CommonPass, and VaccTrack (to name a few) work as a secure, contactless option for those looking to show proof of inoculation. The apps typically require personal identifying information, like biometric data and/or a government ID, to verify information and stop forgeries. The apps utilize security measures like encryption and blockchain technology to protect the health data of users.
Trendsetting New York was among the first to have a program in place with its launch of Excelsior Pass. This IBM-powered smartphone app allows users to display confirmed proof of vaccination or a negative test result. The app is free for individuals and businesses and is becoming a widely accepted form of proof of vaccination at venues across the state and has garnered interest for similar programs to roll out in other states throughout the nation.
Public Opinion on Vaccine Mandates Continues to Vary
Public attitude toward vaccine mandates for customers remains divided, which is another consideration for businesses. A recent Quinnipiac University poll of 1,290 adults from July 27 to August 2 found that 52% support requiring proof of vaccination for airline passengers, 49% support vaccine proof for attendees of large sports and entertainment events, and just 37% support proof for restaurant customers.
“There are varying opinions on who should be required to prove they have had the vaccine. Yes, on proof of vaccination for those who fly, a toss-up for people attending large events, and a no for people going to restaurants,” said Quinnipiac University polling analyst Tim Malloy.
As Delta continues to shape the global landscape, it is important to remember that everyone is working towards the common goal of providing a safe and secure way for people to return to their daily lives.