LIMA, Peru – All the counterfeiters needed to churn out the fake COVID-19 “negative” test results was a certificate template from a private clinic. After that, it was as easy as updating the name and ID details in the document and pressing “print.”
The forgery ring, operating out of a cut-price travel agency in a strip mall opposite Lima’s airport, had been taking advantage of a new market opportunity, created by the legal requirements in a growing number of nations for airline passengers to test negative for COVID-19 in order to be permitted to board.
But instead of actually booking tests for their clients, they charged them 130 Sols ($36) for the bogus certificates, which they provided in minutes.
From Mexico to Chile, police are now arresting crooks carrying out similar cons, faking negative test results for travelers either looking to save money or lacking the time to take a real test and wait for the results before their flights are scheduled to take off.
In some cases, passengers are being duped into thinking that they are taking authentic tests, going through the uncomfortable procedure of having samples taken from their noses and throats. But in others, they are complicit with the crooks, who openly tell them no test is needed and that a cut-price certificate can be issued in less than an hour.
The trend raises the possibility that some passengers who know they have COVID-19 and could be contagious may be endangering others by deliberately purchasing fake “negative” results just so they can travel.
In the case in Lima, cops arrested six people after being led to them by an unnamed passenger whose fake certificate had been detected by airline staff. Much of Peru is currently under lockdown and a negative PCR result, from a test taken within 72 hours of traveling, is required for national and international flights.
Undergoing a real test at a private clinic in Lima typically costs between $70 and $90, with the results coming back within 24 hours. But there have been delays of several days recently both for test appointments and the subsequent results, due to high demand as the second wave crests in much of the country.
Other similar forgery rings have been broken up recently in Chile’s capital Santiago, the Colombian city of Medellin, the Mexican beach resort of Cancun, and the Ecuadorian port of Guayaquil, where three unidentified foreign tourists were detained as they attempted to fly to the Galapagos Islands.
In total, Ecuadorian authorities are reported to have discovered some 250 fake or adulterated PCR test results across the country since late December when they began requiring air passengers to hand over their certificates before boarding.
The Guayaquil case also highlights the callous nature, or desperation, of the crooks faking the certificates. Arguably no place in the Western Hemisphere has experienced a worse local COVID-19 outbreak than the steamy Pacific port. It was so overwhelmed by the pandemic back in March and April that, as hospitals and mortuaries collapsed, grieving families were forced to abandon the corpses of dead relatives in the street, with the grim images going viral around the world.
“If this is not dealt with, you are exposing travelers and cabin crew to the risk of infection,” warned Carlos Gutiérrez, who heads Peru’s national airline association, AETAI. He stressed that risk was principally within the airports, before boarding and after disembarking, rather than on the planes themselves, where high tech air conditioning filters make the cabins relatively safe.
The European branch of Interpol has also uncovered several cases, forcing it to issue a formal Early Warning Notification, noting that modern high-quality printers make faking the certificates easy. The alert added: “As long as travel restrictions remain in place due to the COVID-19 situation, it is highly likely that production and sales of fake test certificates will prevail.”
Yet few European criminals have the counterfeiting chops of their Latin American counterparts, where Peru in the last decade displaced Colombia as the world’s top source of fake US dollars. Meanwhile, the region’s often creaking and corruption-addled public sectors are digital laggards, meaning that paper documents, which lend themselves to forgery, remain the norm.
Gutiérrez, for example, believes Peru needs to establish an online database, with travelers’ test results confirmed as they enter the airport rather than at check-in. The new red tape has created one more headache for airlines already struggling with passenger traffic that has plummeted by more than 90 percent, prompting layoffs of workers and liquidations.
“Airline personnel are not qualified – why should they be? – to evaluate whether these certificates are genuine or not,” he added.
Latin America’s crooks are not just targeting airline passengers. Many countries in the region are also demanding negative test results at land crossings.
Guatemalan authorities last month denounced the fake antigen test results that many Hondurans, in a “caravan” heading for the United States, were conned into buying in their home country before heading north.
Guillermo Díaz, head of Guatemala’s border authority, told local media: “It’s not right because they are taking money from poor people who don’t have it. They are violating the health and migration protocols, putting the Guatemalan population at total risk. We are playing cat and mouse.”
Yet faking tests may just be the tip of the iceberg now that Latin American nations are finally starting to launch their vaccination campaigns. Counterfeit vaccines have already been found in Bolivia and Colombia, even though most countries in the region will, at least until the pandemic has subsided, only allow the vaccinations to be implemented by public healthcare systems rather than the private sector.