A Black Market in COVID-19 Vaccination Cards Was Inevitable

Mandates, instead of incentives, were always going to drive people away.


Given my warnings about the dawning age of vaccine passports, it shouldn't have surprised me when my phone rang over the weekend and an old college buddy asked if I could hook him up with a forged COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card. For the record, I can't help with that, but plenty of other people can. Proliferating requirements for proof of vaccination by schools, employers, and governments have, inevitably, spawned a thriving industry in bogus documents for use by those who don't want to get jabbed, or who resent being bossed around.

Back in February, when vaccines were young and we were all pretending to be innocent, the Federal Bureau of Investigation warned that posting photos online of vaccine cards could invite ID theft and, more convincingly, that people were "using the vaccination cards placed onto social media to forge vaccination cards and selling them for profit."

Later, the FBI called out active markets in forged cards and arrested vendors of the documents. "The unauthorized use of an official government agency's seal on such cards is a crime that may be punishable under Title 18, United States Code, Section 1017, and other federal laws," warn the feds. "Penalties may include hefty fines and prison time."

Note that black market vendors of bogus vaccine cards began appearing prior to New York City requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination for entry to the city's bars, restaurants, gyms, and concert venues. Demand for their wares can only grow now that other jurisdictions are floating similar requirements.

Even before local governments seriously considered requiring shots, employers and colleges began the trend. The federal government, Microsoft, Tyson Foods, and Walmart are among the larger employers mandating vaccination for some or all on-site workers. Tyson suffered COVID-19 closures at plants as early as spring of 2020, and fears further disruption from outbreaks among its workforce.

Colleges, too, worry about large numbers of people in close quarters in classrooms and dormitories. As of this week, The Chronicle of Higher Education counts 675 campuses requiring students and employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

But a lot of people are hesitant about the vaccine, or else just don't like being told what to do. The CEO of Snap-On told the Wall Street Journal that his company rejected mandates for fear of angering workers. Instead, the tool company offers incentives for getting vaccinated, including time off. Other companies pay bonuses for vaccination rather than tick-off people on whom they rely—Walmart offers $150 for getting a shot, while steelmaker Cleveland-Cliffs sweetens the pot with four figures.

That's creative thinking, because ticked-off people resistant to vaccines or just resentful of mandates fuel the black market for vaccination documents. A recent Associated Press investigation found bogus vaccination certificates for sale across social media and on dark web sites for as little as $25. The main customers to-date appear to be college students satisfying school requirements before registering for classes, but more mandates from employers and governments can only mean increased demand.

Of course, the flimsy CDC-issued COVID-19 Vaccination Record Cards aren't exactly high-tech documents designed with security in mind. They require nothing more than a scanner/printer, some card stock, and a few minutes to duplicate for those who care to do the job themselves. That's why governments and businesses are turning to digital vaccine passports that are supposed to be both durable and resistant to fraud. But early efforts haven't been entirely successful.

"I forged it in 11 minutes," Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, warned in April about New York's much-ballyhooed Excelsior Pass. "Not only do the security promises of New York's Excelsior Pass fail to hold up to scrutiny, but the tracking tech raises an alarming array of public health, equity, and civil rights questions that remain unanswered."

More recently, NBC News's Cyrus Farivar got the NYC Covid Safe App to accept a menu from a barbecue restaurant as proof of vaccination. While it's true that a rack of ribs will cure most ills, that's not much of an endorsement for the app's reliability.

"Some of the apps we've seen are made by companies for whom creating secure health passes isn't a sole focus," point out the Washington Post's Chris Velazco and Geoffrey A. Fowler in a review of competitors in the field. "Others might try to get you to pay after you start using the app. Apps that are poorly or unscrupulously written could be used to violate your privacy."

The digital documents can also be complicated to use, so authorities generally accept paper alternatives—which brings us back to those flimsy CDC cards.

This is not to say that it's a bad idea for employers, educators, or even officials to urge people to get vaccinated. There's plenty of evidence that vaccination protects people from illness and limits the spread of disease.

But mandates requiring documentation invite people to battle the system, and it's highly unlikely that anybody is going to out-smart black-market operators working hard to satisfy customers. After years of warnings about how easy it is to forge boarding passes to bypass airport security, hackers still spoof even the modern digital documents. There's probably a lot more demand for fake COVID-19 vaccination records than for bogus boarding passes and therefore more incentive to stay ahead of the authorities.

Already, vaccine mandates have become just another battle of wills between bossy authorities and those who refuse to be bossed. They've spawned protests in some places, and an inevitable market for forged documents everywhere. These mandates have become the latest struggle over the limits of authority and free will. And lost in it all is the fact that vaccination effectively reduces the danger to people of COVID-19 even when others refuse to get jabbed.

A black market in proof of vaccination was inevitable as soon as arm-twisting became the preferred tactic for convincing people to get their shots. Instead of backing people into a corner, we should convince them, even bribe them, and be happy that we get as many to agree to protect themselves against COVID-19 as we do.