People Are Photoshopping COVID Test Results to Bypass Travel Restrictions

People are doctoring test results with Photoshop and Microsoft Paint.
January 21, 2021, 4:49pm
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Image: JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

With the new, more transmissible UK COVID-19 variant now detected in over 60 countries and places like Portugal and Ireland reporting record deaths from the virus, governments around the world have begun requiring airline passengers to present a negative COVID-19 test result before boarding flights destined for their territories. 

The result is also usually required to be from a PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before the passenger’s flight. PCR tests are widely considered the ‘gold standard’ of virus testing and involve analyzing genetic material from a nasal swab to detect whether a person has an active infection. 

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And yet, despite the pandemic and the fact that document forgery is in most countries a serious criminal offence (and a felony in the United States), some travelers are forging test results to get around travel restrictions anyways. 

Motherboard spoke with two people—both of whom asked to remain anonymous to avoid legal repercussions—who claimed to have successfully doctored or forged results. 

“I just fired up photoshop and changed the date,” wrote one man who had doctored results for an entire group of friends to Motherboard. “Fun fact, the document [test result] was in French whereas they were in Sweden the day it was supposedly made, but they didn’t see a problem in that.” 

The other person took a slightly less sophisticated route and changed the date of an old test with Microsoft Paint for his vacation to Southern Europe. 

The two aren’t alone. This week 40 travelers tried to present fake test results to get into Croatia, and earlier this year a Dutch teenager who had tested positive for the virus went a step further and falsified her result to escape quarantine in Switzerland. She was arrested just before boarding the plane. 

In the case of the two people Motherboard spoke to, the main reasoning for doctoring the documents was saving some cash. While PCR tests in European countries are free through the public healthcare system, most national health authorities intentionally refuse to provide patients with the medical certificates required to travel. 

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Those who want to travel anyways are then usually required to have their PCR test done in a private laboratory. In the Netherlands, for example, this usually costs over €100 (~$120). 

“Yeah motivation is mostly to save money,” one wrote over WhatsApp. “Kind of scared but nevertheless I think it's very likely that most Airline workers are not looking out for this type of fraud.” 

An administrator that Motherboard spoke to from the aviation trade association Airlines for America did confirm that, at least to their knowledge, the airline staff often tasked with verifying that a passenger has a legitimate test result do not receive any specialized training. 

One ground employee in Rome’s Fiumicino airport did claim, however, that how meticulously employees are told to check test results can vary depending on airport, country, and airline. Some countries, for example, require passengers to have their results checked both on departure by airline staff and on arrival by border control agents. 

In the case of Fiumicino in particular, she said, a fake test result probably wouldn’t cut it. 

While airlines that fail to catch passengers with fake results can face hefty fines if they are caught at the border of their destination, based on conversations Motherboard had with the two employees, it doesn’t seem to be a priority for most in the sector. 

Despite the fact that health authorities in many countries urgently advise citizens to avoid international travel altogether, at least some using fake results believe they are still acting in good faith. 

“I do not intend in any form to contribut [to the spread of the virus,” one wrote, “or have anything against testing.”