Criminals turn to apps with direct messaging to sell fake COVID vaccine cards

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein led a nationwide effort to crack down on people using eBay, Shopify and Twitter to sell fake vaccine cards. It seemed like the efforts were working, too.

But Action 9 investigator Jason Stoogenke discovered that criminals are finding other ways to sell the cards illegally. Now, they’re using other social media platforms to advertise blank cards for sale and potential customers can direct message them.

Maya Levine works for the cybersecurity company Check Point Software Technologies. The company has been monitoring the fake vaccine card business for months, and they’ve noticed that criminals are switching to apps that focus more on direct messaging.

“It’s very cheap. Unfortunately, it’s going for as low as $11,” Levine said.

Levine told Stoogenke that she found cards for that price on the Telegram app, where you can reach a large audience on something called “channels.”

“In March 2021, we noticed around 20 channels selling these fake vaccine cards for the U.S. and a few other countries; and by May 2021, that number jumped up to over 100 channels,” she said. “It’s a lot more accessible to everyday average folks.”

Stoogenke downloaded the app and did his own search. He found multiple posts offering fake or blank vaccine cards such as these:

“Blank cards available.”

“If you can’t take the vaccines and need the cards, contact us.”

“Message me I sell cheap.”

Stoogenke messaged two of the sellers. Both told him cards cost $100 each. One seller said for $150 he has a doctor who would “register [it] so everything is authentic.”

Stoogenke contacted Attorney General Stein about what he found.

“If you want a vaccine card, you don’t have to go on the Internet and pay some crook for one. You can get one for free when you get your vaccine, and you have the added benefit of being protected from COVID-19,” Stein said.

According to the FBI, fake vaccine cards are bad for public health reasons: “By misrepresenting yourself as vaccinated when entering schools, mass transit, workplaces, gyms, or places of worship, you put yourself and others around you at risk of contracting COVID-19.”

It’s also illegal not to just sell fake cards, but to buy them. Buying a fake card is a federal crime that can cost you up to five years behind bars.

Stoogenke emailed Telegram last week to ask what it is doing to police its platform and combat this problem. At this time, the company has not responded.

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