In Chicago, a pharmacist was arrested for swiping 125 official vaccination cards from work and selling them for $10 a pop. Across the country in New Jersey, a 31-year-old woman is charged with selling hundreds of forged vaccination cards under the Instagram handle “AntiVaxMomma.” In Hawaii, investigators knew something was up when they saw “Maderna” — instead of the correctly spelled Moderna — on a traveler’s card.
COVID-19 vaccination cards that are issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and (sort of) fit in wallets are becoming a hot commodity as society reopens and travel depots, restaurants and other institutions demand proof of immunization.
Only 52% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, however, so the shift toward stringent rules means vaccine holdouts are seeking ways around the rules, including fraud.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection says they’re intercepting shipments of fraudulent cards from China with alarming regularity, and earlier this year, dozens of state attorneys general told eBay, Shopify and Twitter to be on the lookout for deceptive marketing and sales of fake vaccine cards, dubbing them “a threat to residents of our states.”
The CDC-issued cards list a person’s first and — depending on the type of vaccine — second dose and where and when the shots were administered. The cards are important for travel, and New York City and other places are demanding proof of vaccination via the cards or special apps before letting people into restaurants, gyms or performance venues.
An arrest in Hawaii last week underscored the lengths investigators will go to sniff out a forgery.
The state imposes a 10-day quarantine on persons who fail to provide proof of vaccination or a negative test upon entry. Airport screeners failed to confirm a hotel reservation for a 24-year-old visitor, Chloe Mrozak, so investigators called the hotel she previously listed in her “Safe Travels Program” forms.
They found no reservation there, and suspicions deepened when her uploaded vaccine cards misspelled Massachusetts drugmaker Moderna as “Maderna.”
“That’s one indication, as well as other things that in the card they thought it was suspicious and as part of being suspicious they did an excellent job of notifying us,” Special Agent William Lau of the state Department of the Attorney General told KHON2 news in Honolulu.
Officials also couldn’t find a record of her immunization in Delaware, the state she listed as her vaccination location. Ms. Mrozak was intercepted at the airport as she tried to depart on Aug. 28 and held on $2,000 bail.
Chicago authorities are prosecuting a case in which a pharmacist allegedly swiped CDC cards from the drugstore where he worked and sold them online. The pharmacy had cards in stock because it administers the vaccine.
Prosecutors underscored the potential risks to businesses and institutions who think they are mingling with people who enjoy some level of protection against infection.
“Knowingly selling COVID vaccination cards to unvaccinated individuals puts millions of Americans at risk of serious injury or death,” said Special Agent in Charge Emmerson Buie Jr. of the FBI’s Chicago Field Office. “To put such a small price on the safety of our nation is not only an insult to those who are doing their part in the fight to stop COVID-19 but a federal crime with serious consequences.”
The indictment against 34-year-old Tangtang Zhao did not name the pharmacy that employed him.
One major retailer and vaccine distributor, CVS Health, told The Washington Times that it safeguards its cards.
“Vaccinations cards are stored in a locked location and we closely monitor their use in our pharmacies,” spokesman Matthew Blanchette said.
Some cards aren’t real to begin with and are flooding the U.S. from China and other places. CBP in mid-August said officers in the port of Memphis alone had made 121 seizures totaling 3,017 of the vaccine cards. It described a recent shipment from Shenzen, China, marked as “PAPER CARD, PAPER” and intended for the central business district of New Orleans.
Officers already knew what would be inside —low-quality vaccine cards that look like the CDC cards but often have typos, unfinished words and Spanish verbiage on the back that includes misspellings.
“A lot of them look pretty legit but they all are slightly different,” said Matthew Dyman a CBP spokesman in New Orleans who told The Washington Times the shipments keep coming in from southern China. “We’ve stopped keeping count, that’s how much it is,”
CBP officers say people can choose whether to get vaccinated but their decision to drive demand for fake cards is harmful and distracts inspectors as they try to intercept fentanyl and other contraband.
“It’s not hindering them from catching anything else, but now they have to bother with this,” Mr. Dyman said.
And “it’s not a victimless crime,” he said. “You’re going out in the world potentially with COVID.”
Experts say part of the problem is that the Trump and Biden administrations and governors have been reluctant to introduce tightly secured and verified systems in place of the paper cards. Any talk of vaccine rosters or structured systems raises hackles from anti-vaxxers or those worried about government overreach, much to the chagrin of those who say mass vaccination and mandates are needed to end the pandemic.
“Need a chipped card like a credit card, harder to counterfeit,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine. “One national standardized card linked to passport or driver’s licenses, when possible.”
New York City is hoping its vaccine-pass program, which requires a vaccine card or proof on an approved phone app, will compel people to get vaccinated, rather than cheat as inspectors get ready to enforce the program by mid-September.
Officials have warned people that any attempt to defraud card-checkers at the door will be considered a crime.
“The most important point is that a fake vaccination card constitutes fraud and will be prosecuted as fraud by that individual. We will have recourse for people to report if they’re encountering fake vaccination cards, both at the City level through 3-1-1 as well as at the State level through the State Attorney General’s Office,” Dave Chokshi, commissioner of the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, told reporters on Aug. 16.
Prosecutors in New York recently charged a New Jersey woman, Jasmine Clifford, with selling forged vaccine cards for $200 apiece and, for $250 more, another woman would enter buyers’ names into the New York vaccinated database.
Authorities charged the second woman — Nadayza Barkley, an employee at a medical clinic in Patchogue, N.Y. — in connection with the case. They allege she fraudulently entered at least 10 people into New York’s vaccination database.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. said his office will continue to prosecute these cases, though he’d like to see social media companies crack down on the black market.
“We will continue to safeguard public health in New York with proactive investigations like these,” he said, “but the stakes are too high to tackle fake vaccination cards with whack-a-mole prosecutions.”
The inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, meanwhile, is warning Americans to stay on the right side of the law.
“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,” it says in a tipsheet. “Offers to purchase COVID-19 vaccination cards are scams. Valid proof of COVID-19 vaccination can only be provided to individuals by legitimate providers administering vaccines.”
• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.
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