One month after 45 state attorneys general pleaded with e-commerce sites to ban ads for fake CDC vaccination cards, some of the sales have migrated to the encrypted social media app Telegram.
“Keep your family and loved ones safe by not letting them get injected with this Covid vacccines [sic],” wrote one Telegram user who identified himself as a doctor. “Inbox us and we’ll get you the cards without any vaccine.”
Another Telegram account, which called itself a pharmacy, posted a picture of a blank CDC card with the caption, “Clients who want only vaccination record cards – Now available.”
When the I-Team asked the pharmacy account for a sample vaccination card with no name on it, the seller quoted a price of $89 plus shipping — with payment in the form of an iTunes gift card. After the I-Team sent the gift card, the seller said a real person’s name would be required to produce the sample CDC card. After providing the name of an I-Team producer, the Telegram pharmacy account produced a counterfeit CDC card that included not only our producer’s name, but what appeared to be a real Moderna lot number alongside a real New Jersey pharmacy.
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The I-Team never requested real vaccine information to be included on the card. But the digital purchase demonstrates just how easy it is for people to obtain what seem to be real COVID vaccination records without ever getting the shot.
“It is not okay to forge a government document or to misuse or falsely use a government logo like the CDC,” said William Tong, Connecticut’s Attorney General. He said both federal law and state fraud statutes ban people from creating vaccination records with false information – let alone selling those fakes.
Despite public warnings from prosecutors and the FBI, sellers of fake vaccine cards seem undeterred on Telegram. One reason for the defiance may be the app’s focus on encrypted communication – giving sellers of the fake cards a sense of anonymity. Another factor bolstering the thriving black market for CDC cards may be the concentration of anti-vaccine disinformation on Telegram. On the app, many of the offers to sell fraudulent vaccine cards appear adjacent to posts about vaccine conspiracy theories, including false claims COVID vaccines alter your DNA.
The I-Team reached out to the developers of Telegram, but the platform did not respond by the deadline for this report. The Telegram pharmacy account that sold a counterfeit card with our producer’s name appears to have vanished from the platform.
But the Telegram user selling fake CDC cards under a doctor’s name told the I-Team he would continue selling the fraudulent records — in effect daring federal law enforcement to stop him.
“Who cares about the FBI and their evil diabolical plan,” he wrote in a Telegram chat. “We produced these cards for people who need them.” The Telegram user, who said he is a licensed physician, also cited the unsupported claim that the vaccine is “unsafe for humans.”
“I know what we’re doing is illegal,” he added, “but we have no choice than to save humans especially our fellow Americans from this poisonous vaccines [sic].”
Kaitlin Caruso, Acting Director of New Jersey’s Division of Consumer Affairs, said thwarting vaccine card counterfeiters is a massive challenge for state and federal law enforcement, partly because the paper CDC records are so ubiquitous in all 50 states.
“It is a widespread cross-jurisdictional challenge that has a little bit of a whack-a-mole element to it,” she said.
But Caruso said her office is working to bolster the paper records by encouraging legitimate vaccinations be recorded in the New Jersey Immunization Information System, an online registry that consolidates vaccination data for kids and adults. And she said if healthcare professionals like doctors and pharmacists are falsifying vaccination information, they could face double the legal trouble.
“For those individuals it is especially fraught,” Caruso said. “In addition to whatever criminal or civil penalties they may be facing, they may very well face serious consequences to their licensure.”
Of course, the most serious consequence is to public health. The more fraudulent vaccination records out there, the harder it is to be confident in the authentic ones.
“Saying that you’re vaccinated means something,” Tong said, “and lying about that is a very dangerous game.”