How big a problem are counterfeit vaccine passes?

“No to the health passport.”
“No to the health passport.”
Image: Reuters/Benoit Tessier
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In July this year, France started issuing official covid passes. These certificates have become a prerequisite to gain access to numerous venues, including bars, restaurants, cinemas, gyms, and long-distance trains. Citizens can get them in one of three ways: vaccination, recovery from covid-19, or a recent negative test. Over 65s must have their third booster shot to activate the pass. Tourists visiting the country can get their health passes at designated pharmacies for 36 euros ($40).

There has been predicable resistance to the public health measure, particularly among the unvaccinated, with more than 160,000 protestors claiming it unfairly restricts their freedom. Eventually, the system became ridden with a forgery problem as miscreants looked for a way around the rules—even if it cost them hundreds of euros.

France found thousands of fakes

Almost 400 investigations later, French authorities have unearthed upwards of 182,000 fake covid health passes. More than 100 people have been arrested, including some health professionals like a Val-de-Marne doctor accused of selling at least 220 fake health passes.

Those guilty of fabricating fakes face up to five years in prison and €75,000 in fines; buyers are looking at €45,000 in fines and three years in prison.

Come January, France, which has fully vaccinated more than 86% of its population, is considering moving from a health pass to a stricter “vaccine pass“–one that will only allow vaccinated people to enter indoor public places. With that, it’ll also need to ramp up its counterfeit counter-attack.

Fake vaccine certificates are plaguing the world

In Germany, Australia, India, the US, and at least two dozen other countries, fake vaccine certificates have been available on Instagram, Facebook, and the more secure Telegram.

Both the sale and purchase of these illegal documents are skyrocketing: Between August and September, the number of people selling fake covid-19 certificates on Telegram jumped up from 1,000 to 10,000, and the number of members in Telegram groups where they were being sold increased from 30,000 to 300,000.

In the UK, forgers not only offered paper certificates, but they also claimed to provide QR codes for official apps, claiming they worked with people inside health authorities to alter the database—a claim investigators say is “highly credible.”

“The only way to stop these fake vaccine certificates and keep people safe is through a more secure approach to documentation and identity verification,” Paul Townsend, a government systems expert at fraud prevention firm Acuant, told Healthcare Global magazine. “The goal is to make vaccine verification a one-time event and to enable solutions that responsibly balance consumer privacy and security by allowing users to share information safely and easily as needed.”