Fake vaccine passports are changing hands on messaging app Telegram for up to $240 with online sellers even accepting PayPal transactions.
Experts say the forged documents are easily obtained and are seeing a boom in demand as Covid-19 vaccinations create new-found freedom for people who have had a shot.
Miro Dittrich, who investigated fake passport sales in Germany, told The National that the market had moved from the dark web to the more mainstream Telegram and grown beyond its initial base of conspiracy theorists and right-wing extremists.
“The issue of how one can get a vaccination pass without getting vaccinated is getting more and more popular,” said Mr Dittrich, a researcher at the Centre for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy in Berlin.
“We can clearly see that these groups are growing pretty quickly, and there’s a huge interest and there’s a lot of transactions.”
Online sellers offer different ways of transferring the money, including PayPal and cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin.
One seller’s cryptocurrency wallet had nearly $17,000 paid into it, although it was not clear how much of this was from vaccine passports.
The sellers are easy to find with a simple search on Telegram, Mr Dittrich said.
Mr Dittrich and a colleague at Cemas, Pia Lamberty, found new Telegram channels appearing frequently on which fake vaccination passports were on sale.
For a typical fee of about $12, buyers could get instructions on how to produce a forgery and a sticker that forms part of the genuine article.
A full certificate usually costs between $120 and $240, the researchers found, with stamps purporting to come from German cities such as Berlin, Munich or Cologne.
In Germany, which has yet to introduce a digital vaccine pass, buyers are sent a physical copy of their forged certificate.
Under new rules introduced by the German government this month, a genuine certificate grants exemptions from certain lockdown restrictions such as curfews.
One proposal for a digital system is that pharmacies should check people’s hard-copy certificates and enter their details into a database.
Mr Dittrich warned of potential vulnerabilities with this system. “I don’t think a pharmacy can evaluate if a fake vaccination passport is authentic or not,” he said.
Criminals and conspiracy theorists behind fake passports
Meanwhile, some of the channels appeared to be scams and there were some unhappy buyers who never received their fake documents.
Some of the sellers also used Telegram channels to distribute illegal goods, such as weapons or drugs.
“Most of the offers that we see there are clearly done by criminals, who use the same methods to sell other illegal things, and it’s highly professional,” Mr Dittrich said.
“But we also see a lot of ideological people selling vaccination passports because they think vaccinations are evil and they are going to kill you.”
The pandemic contributed to a general increase in the number of conspiracy theorists on sites such as Telegram and Facebook, researchers said.
Discussions about fake vaccination passports were detected on Telegram last year, before any of the Covid-19 vaccines had even been introduced.
Some sellers can be identified by authorities. In Berlin last month, three men were arrested for allegedly trying to sell fake passes to plain clothes police officers.
The men allegedly had a supply of fake certificates that they had acquired on a messaging app, with some being offered for sale and others stashed in a car.
Speaking this week, Germany’s Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht issued a warning to people trying to use fake certificates.
“I can only give an emphatic warning against forging vaccine certificates, or procuring and using fake certificates showing vaccination, test results or recovery,” she said.
“This is not a trivial offence but a serious crime.”