SAN FRANCISCO – Small rectangular pieces of paper began to appear on sale on Etsy, eBay, Facebook, and Twitter in late January. They were printed on cardboard, measured three by ten centimeters and had sharp black letters. Sellers listed them for $ 20 to $ 60 each, discounted on bundles of three or more. Laminated copies cost extra.
They were all fakes or forged copies of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccination cards given to people vaccinated against Covid-19 in the United States.
“We found hundreds of online stores selling the cards, possibly thousands were sold,” said Saoud Khalifah, the founder of FakeSpot, which provides tools to detect fake listings and reviews online.
The coronavirus has turned many people into opportunists, such as those who hoarded bottles of hand sanitizer at the start of the pandemic or those who cheated recipients of their incentive vouchers. Now online scammers have joined the latest profitable initiative: the little white cards that provide proof of shots.
Online stores offering counterfeit or stolen vaccination cards have grown tremendously in recent weeks, Mr Khalifah said. The efforts are far from hidden, with Facebook pages called “vax cards” and eBay listings featuring “blank vaccine cards” openly haunting the items.
Selling fake vaccination cards could violate federal laws prohibiting copying the CDC logo, legal experts said. If the cards were stolen and filled in with false numbers and dates, they could also violate identity theft laws, they said.
But profiteers have continued as demand for the cards has increased from anti-vaccine activists and other groups. Airlines and other companies have recently said they may need proof of Covid-19 immunization so that people can travel or attend events safely.
The cards may also become central to “vaccine passports”, which provide a digital vaccination certificate. Some tech companies developing vaccine passports ask people to upload copies of their CDC cards. Los Angeles also recently started using the CDC cards for its own digital proof of immunization.
Last week, 45 public attorneys general gathered to call Twitter, Shopify and eBay to stop the sale of fake and stolen vaccination cards. The officials said they were monitoring activity and were concerned that unvaccinated people would misuse the cards to attend major events, potentially spreading the virus and prolonging the pandemic.
“We see a huge market for these counterfeit cards online,” said Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania attorney general whose office has investigated fraud related to the virus. “This is a dangerous practice that is undermining public health.”
The CDC said it was “aware of cases of fraud involving counterfeit Covid-19 vaccine cards.” It asked people not to share pictures of their personal information or vaccination cards on social media.
Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Shopify and Etsy said the sale of fake vaccination cards violated their rules and removed messages promoting the items.
The CDC introduced the vaccination charts in December, describing them as the “easiest” way to track Covid-19 shots. In January, sales of counterfeit vaccination cards began to soar, Mr. Khalifah. Many people found that the cards were easy to counterfeit from samples available online. Authentic cards were also stolen from their workplaces by pharmacists and offered for sale, he said.
Many people who bought the cards were against the Covid-19 vaccines, Mr Khalifah said. In some anti-vaccination groups on Facebook, people have publicly bragged about getting the cards.
“My body is my choice,” one commenter wrote in a Facebook post last month. Another person replied, “I can’t wait to get mine too, lol.”
Other buyers want to use the cards to trick pharmacists into giving them a vaccine, Mr Khalifah said. Because some vaccines are two-shot schedules, people can enter a false first shot date on the card, making it seem like they’ll need a second dose soon. Some pharmacies and state vaccination sites have prioritized people who need to get their second shot.
An Etsy seller, who declined to be identified, said she recently sold dozens of fake vaccination cards for $ 20 each. She justified her actions by saying that she helped people avoid a ‘tyrannical government’. She added that she had no intention of getting vaccinated.
Vaccine advocates say they have suffered from the proliferation of counterfeit and stolen cards. To hold those people accountable, Savannah Sparks, a pharmacist in Biloxi, Miss., Started posting videos on TikTok last month mentioning the sellers of counterfeit vaccination cards.
In one video, Ms. Sparks explained how she tracked down the name of a pharmacy technician in Illinois who took several cards for herself and her husband and then posted about them online. The pharmacy assistant had not disclosed her identity, but had linked the message to her social media accounts, where she used her real name. The video has been viewed 1.2 million times.
“It made me so angry that a pharmacist used her access and position this way,” said Ms. Sparks. The video caught the attention of the Illinois Pharmacists Association, who said it reported the video to a state administration for further investigation.
Ms. Sparks said her work had attracted detractors and vaccination opponents who threatened her and posted her home phone number and address online. But she was not deterred.
“They should be the first to advocate for human vaccination,” she said of pharmacists. “Instead, they try to use their position to spread fear and help people bypass the vaccine.”
Pennsylvania Attorney General Mr. Shapiro said that in addition to violating federal copyright laws, the sale of counterfeit and stolen cards most likely violated civil and consumer protection laws that require an item to be used as advertised. The cards could also violate state laws regarding impersonation, he said.
“We want them to stop immediately,” Mr. Shapiro said of the fraudsters. “And we want the companies to take serious and immediate action.”