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COVID-19 vaccine cards, the only 'proof' of vaccination, create demand for fakes

Americans who don’t want to get the shot, but want the privilege of showing a card may be tempted to get a fake.
Beyond Big Cities, Independent Pharmacies 'Begging' For Vaccine
Headlines have called the card “precious paper” and “a ticket to freedom.”TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Heightened interest in COVID-19 vaccine record cards could be leading to fakes. No other documents are given at the time of the shot, so many people consider them proof of vaccination.

They’re not intended to be: The cards are designed to serve as an “old school” reminder for the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine. They have a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention logo, but no security features.

“There’s nothing fancy about them,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security in Baltimore, told TODAY. “I think of them as almost like a souvenir… it's just a piece of paper.”

Adalja has never been asked to show his card since he was vaccinated for COVID-19 in December and he was not aware of the cards being used as condition for entry in any kind of venue in the U.S., but some officials have recommended keeping them readily available.

Chicago, which has an emergency travel order in place, recommends returning residents and out-of-state visitors arriving in the city “bring a copy of your COVID-19 vaccination records.”

The CDC advises Americans to keep their vaccination card in case they “need it for future use” and to consider taking a picture of it as a backup copy. Office Depot and Staples are offering to laminate them for free.

Some Uber drivers have been spotted displaying their vaccination cards, presumably to make riders more comfortable.

People are reportedly showing off the cards on their dating profiles to attract companions.

Then, there are the perks, like getting a free doughnut if you show your COVID-19 vaccine card.

Headlines have called it “precious paper” and “a ticket to freedom.”

Counterfeit cards

Americans who don’t want to get the shot, but want the privilege of showing a card may be tempted to get a fake, believing it will help them navigate the world easier. NBC Chicago reported blank cards being sold on sites like Craigslist, eBay and more. Now, companies monitoring the web are warning about illegitimate vaccination cards being sold online.

“A new trend in counterfeit vaccination cards has arisen,” Chad Anderson, a senior security researcher for DomainTools in Seattle, wrote last month.

“The record cards are the sole source to corroborate an individual has been vaccinated… As cities begin opening up for those that have been vaccinated, we believe there will be enhanced demand and incentive for counterfeit card production.”

Blank “U.S.-themed CDC cards” began to be sold online in January for $20 each or $60 for a four-pack, DomainTools observed.

Fake COVID-19 vaccination certificates from various countries, including the U.S., were being offered on the Darknet — a part of the internet that can be accessed only by specialized software or hardware — according to Check Point Software Technologies in San Carlos, California. As of March 23, the market place for the fraudulent activity was reported being taken down.

There have also been reports of health care workers who have access to the CDC cards taking blanks and filling them out to pass themselves or their family members as vaccinated — “a trend that could have huge implications for the vulnerable Americans these employees serve,” the Daily Beast reported.

Printing a blank wouldn’t even take much effort since a template can easily be found online. When a local news station in Lafayette, Louisiana, recently set out to create a fake vaccine card, it took the team 15 minutes. "Since other people had posted their vaccine information online like the lot number, product name, and clinic site, it only had to be copied over," KLFY noted.

Few consequences?

A person possessing a fake card likely wouldn’t face a penalty, said William Kresse, an accountant and attorney who teaches fraud examination at Governors State University in suburban Chicago, who refers to himself as “Professor Fraud.”

“If it was a government document, that would be considered forgery, but there's nothing on the card to indicate that it's a government document,” Kresse said.

But if an airline, movie theater or other venue required the card for entry — something that doesn’t appear to be happening right now — and a person used a fake, that would be considered trespassing, he noted, comparing it to entering a concert without a ticket.

Both Kresse and Adalja weren’t surprised that there seemed to be a market for fakes. Vaccine skeptics aside, there’s a lot of frustration about the vaccine rollout, so some people may rationalize that until they get their shot, at least they’ll have the card, Kresse noted.

The potential buyers of fakes are “stupid people,” Adalja said bluntly. The flimsy piece of paper wouldn’t be used as the basis for a vaccine passport, he noted. If and when unveiled, a true proof of vaccination will likely be a smartphone app that's married with your state’s immunization registry. That's how New York's Excelsior Pass works.

“The fact that people are worried about fraud is another example of the government not really thinking about this pandemic response in a proactive way,” Adalja said.

“It's unfortunate that they rolled it out this way,” Kresse agreed. “As long as there is a market of people willing to pay, fraudsters will try to satisfy that market.”

When TODAY asked the CDC for comment, the agency referred all questions about vaccination cards to the White House. TODAY had not received a response from the White House at the time of publication.