As the world has opened up in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, those wanting to travel have increasingly been asked to provide proof of full vaccination, a recent negative Covid test or evidence of recovery from the virus. The EU has set up a member-state scheme to allow those with such documentation to move more freely; in certain countries, full vaccination removes the requirement to quarantine on arrival and/or returning home.
In light of these new rules, fake vaccine passports – mostly bought and sold on the darknet – have become a booming business. According to a March report from cybersecurity company Check Point, savvy entrepreneurs are now charging upwards of $250 (USD) for falsified passport documents.
Until now, these bogus documents have mainly been used for travel purposes, but with Boris Johnson having just unveiled new plans that will require proof of vaccination for entry to clubs and possibly other crowded venues, it’s possible that UK sales will grow even more.
VICE talked to several people in the UK, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, who have created or bought their own false documentation.
Quinn and Cameron are two self-described “PDF artists” who lift QR codes from real vaccine certificates and doctor the Adobe files to create fake passes. Most vaccine passports are digitised, but paper versions are also accepted – a move widely criticised for being easy to falsify.
It’s certainly worked out for Quinn and Cameron: “[Outside the EU], other countries just need a PDF print-out of the PCR or vaccine letter, which are easy to edit.”
They insist their documents are not for sale: “It’s not a business, it’s just for friends.” So far, they say, they’ve only provided their services to loved ones who would otherwise miss out on a long-saved for holiday or visiting family abroad – those who either didn’t get a vaccination letter in time to travel, who have been double vaccinated but not yet passed the two-week mark, or simply couldn’t afford the expensive PCR travel test required.
Digital passports are supposedly harder to forge, but that hasn’t stopped friends Alex and Taylor from paying £850 on the black market for one. Through a friend of a friend, they were put in touch with a seller who was able to produce a fake passport that syncs to the NHS app.
The app is supposedly more secure against fraud than paper forms, linking to both your GP and NHS number. Alex and Taylor shared a copy of the false document – which looked indistinguishable from the real thing – with VICE. “I’m not anti-vax; I’ve had all the other [non-COVID vaccines], but the COVID one is still in the trial period and I feel like it’s a bit of an experiment,” explains Taylor, who also vaccinated their child as a baby.
Alex agrees: “I feel like the vaccine was rushed through.”
Vaccine development was accelerated thanks to a global effort to tackle the pandemic, though, as pointed out by Reuters, clinical and safety standards have been maintained throughout. All three vaccines approved for use in the UK have already been through normal stages of vaccine testing, including human and animal studies. And while trials are still ongoing, this is to allow researchers to carry out routine safety monitoring on the trial participants for up to two years.
Ali, a parent of two young children, has been seriously considering buying a fake vaccine passport for a while: “I haven’t just yet, but I more than likely will. I’m still wrapping my head around the idea of doing something like that but I also feel I have no choice.” Like Alex and Taylor, they don’t consider themselves an anti-vaxxer, “but I am 100 per cent an anti-COVID vaxxer”.
Aren’t they afraid of getting the virus in the first place? Alex and Taylor both say they’d rather take their chances. Neither of them are against other people getting the vaccine, but their issue is with what they call the “propaganda” nature of the COVID vaccine: “Just because James Cordon dances around and tells us to get a vaccine, doesn’t mean we should get a vaccine,” says Taylor, referring to the Late Late Show host’s video with Ariana Grande promoting vaccine uptake.
Both Alex and Taylor explain that because they run in circles where others also question the vaccine, it’s not proven too difficult to source fake passports. “We know quite a few people now who have [one],” Taylor says.
“I even saw someone put on their Instagram story, ‘If anyone wants the vaccine, let me know, I know someone who can [give] the vaccine really fast’,” recalls Alex, “but what they actually mean is… not that.”
In early July, Italian police managed to infiltrate and shut down a number of Telegram channels where anonymous sellers were placing adverts for fake vaccine passports. Gian Luca Berruti, the head of Milan’s tax cyber-fraud police unit, said “about 250,000 users had registered, and a hundred tried to interact with the sellers”.
Several US states have also put their foot down after noticing the uptick in fake vaccine certificates. New York legislators have put forward a bill to outlaw possessing or forging fake vaccine passports, and New Jersey is considering doing the same.
The UK, however, appears ill-equipped to tackle the surge in falsified documents. Until the new requirements for club entry come into force in September, it is British tourism that will continue to bear the brunt of the illicit industry.
UK border staff, who recently advised MPs on the increase of the forged passes, have admitted that it is almost impossible to recognise bogus documents certifying vaccine status or a COVID-19 negative test. “It’s predominantly taken on trust,” said Lucy Moreton of the Immigration Services Union that represents border and customs employees.
One of the greatest challenges in distinguishing these fakes is that each country has its own version of vaccine passports or negative test results. “There’s no international standard, it varies from country to country, and even from provider to provider,” Moreton explained in an interview with Sky News.
Alex and Taylor bought their forged documents before Boris Johnson’s club announcement, but they are concerned about being left out of everyday life if vaccine passports become more widespread. “If you’re not double jabbed, you’ll slowly be excluded from society,” shrugs Alex.
Human rights and privacy rights groups have raised similar concerns over vaccine passport schemes. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has told the Cabinet Office that if the passport programme is enforced in other areas of life like work, health and leisure, it risks creating a “two-tier society”.
The EHRC has pointed out that vaccine passports could deepen social exclusion in groups where vaccine take-up is lower, including those from migrant and marginalised communities and lower-income backgrounds. “Any mandatory requirement for vaccination or the implementation of Covid-status certification may amount to indirect discrimination, unless the requirement can be objectively justified,” they warned.
Taylor thinks that most people who are also avoiding getting the jab will wait to see how the false documents are received before making a purchase, but both they and Alex are certain that there will be a rise in the number of sales in light of the PM’s new rules.
“I’m getting messages from people asking if I can still get that ‘thing’ following Boris Johnson’s announcement,” Alex reveals. “As more things [like that] are announced, more people are going to want them.”
VICE has approached the Home Office for comment and will update the story with their response.