VICE World News has uncovered a string of Telegram channels claiming to sell fake COVID passes to Italian anti-vaxxers in reaction to tightening restrictions in the country.
As anti-vaxxers grow increasingly resentful of Italy’s COVID rules, VICE World News has found over ten channels claiming to sell fake green passes, which Italians need in order to access cinemas, shops and are mandatory in the workplace. Many of the channels have over 5,000 or 10,000 subscribers, while two have more than 400,000.
Despite police efforts to curb the channels in a sting last summer, these accounts appear to be proliferating; several seem to have ramped up their activity after Italy introduced new guidelines in early January that extended their vaccine mandate to everybody over 50 years old. Some have only been launched in 2022, while others have going since the summer.
Our investigation comes as an Italian nurse has been arrested on suspicion of giving fake COVID-19 vaccines to at least 45 people.
She was reported after a doctor noticed her emptying vaccine needles into a medical waste bin before pretending to inject a person’s arm.
She and four alleged accomplices have also been accused of finding anti-vaxxers who were willing to pay €300 (£250) for a fake health pass.
In the channels uncovered by VICE World News, most use cryptocurrencies to keep transactions anonymous, and share a steady mix of adverse-reaction videos, screenshots of ‘satisfied customers’, and urgent commands for prospective customers to hurry.
“Another 200 green passes sold in just one week, thank you!” boasts one account. “They took down our account at 130,000 subscribers – but I always return! You already know that!” says another.
Although 81 percent of Italy’s population has received their first dose of the vaccine – that’s more than the UK, Germany and France – online anti-vaxx ideologies appear to be growing.
Last month a study from the Mesit Foundation found that the number of anti-vaxxers on the internet in Italy had more than doubled between May and November 2021. They estimated that 910,000 people followed Facebook and Telegram pages, channels or groups on the topic of vaccines, and that over half of these followed ‘No Vax’ pages specifically.
It found that almost one in two Telegram groups opposed to the green pass were involved in selling fake certificates. An expert called it “an invisible pandemic” of its own kind.
“What strikes me the most is that these activities are taking place brazenly and in the open,” said Francesca Arcostanzo from the Institute of Strategic Dialogue. “Initially such operations were occurring on the dark web, and as such remained more difficult to access for the average citizen.”
She added that the rising demand has been accompanied by a proliferation of Telegram channels and groups claiming to provide fake passes.
“Anyone on Telegram can find and join them with a simple search,” she said. “They also have overt and self-explanatory names such as ‘Super green pass on sale’, ‘Buy green pass’, ‘Buy verified green pass’, which would make the identification and removal of at least these channels easy to achieve.”
VICE World News was unable to verify whether the fake passes work, though several channels post messages from customers saying that they are satisfied. Prices ranged from €70 to €400; one account using Bitcoin for payments said they would create 100 fake passes for €10,000.
“Anecdotally, there appears to be an increase in scams both related to COVID and targeted conspiracy groups,” said Jordan Wildon, an OSINT analyst at Logically. “I think with the captive audience that these chats offer (sometimes in the hundreds of thousands) and the lack of moderation from Telegram outside of people having the ability to flag chats as scams, this kind of thing is very easy to do.”
In August, Italian police shut down 32 Telegram groups where users could buy fake green passes. Four people were placed under investigation on suspicion of fraud and forgery.
But Arcostanzo warned: “It is unrealistic to imagine that the Italian police alone could counter this threat without any form of collaboration from Telegram itself - at the very least, more efforts could be made to remove the most accessible groups and channels. While the Guardia di Finanza claims to be carrying out ‘ongoing monitoring’ of these activities, it is clear that existing efforts are far from sufficient. A timely takedown of these channels is key to limit the spread of fake Covid passes.”
Telegram’s content-moderation policies are extremely limited, and only ban the promotion of violence on public channels and the sharing of illegal pornographic material.
Research from the Institute of Strategic Dialogue shows how this policy has made Telegram the haven for a wide range of malicious activities – from vaccine misinformation to white supremacist mobilisation.
Telegram did not respond to a request for comment.
Gianni Riotta from the Italian Digital Media Observatory told VICE World News: “Telegram knows very well it is a main highway of disinformation, but prizes income more than information.”
VICE World News also found links to these channels posted in several anti-vaxx Facebook groups.
Francesco Pierri, a PhD candidate at the Politecnico di Milano who specialises in disinformation, said that mainstream social media including Facebook and Twitter also need to be taking this more seriously.
“People who go on Telegram already have a stance towards getting vaccinated so I think the problem is way before that line. Why are there these groups of people wanting to avoid getting vaccinated? Finding the root cause of this problem is much more important than just shutting down a few Telegram channels.”