ROSELYN ROMERO, Associated Press
As the delta variant of the coronavirus hits the United States, more colleges and universities are demanding proof of COVID-19 vaccination for students in order to take in-person classes. However, according to interviews with students, education and law enforcement officials, the new mandate has opened the door to those who oppose receiving the vaccine to defraud the system.
A home industry has sprung up over the internet to take in people who say they will not be vaccinated for personal or religious reasons.
An Instagram account with the username “vaccinationcards” sells laminated COVID-19 vaccination cards for US $ 25 each. A user of the encrypted messaging app Telegram is offering “COVID-19 Vaccine Card Certificates” for up to $ 200 each.
An increasing number of inquiries to this and similar websites appear to be from those trying to obtain fake college vaccination cards.
Commenting on a thread about counterfeiting COVID-19 vaccination cards, a Reddit user said in part, “I need one for college too. I refuse to be a guinea pig. “
At least 675 colleges and universities now require proof of COVID-19 vaccinations, according to a tally by The Chronicle of Higher Education. The process of confirming vaccination at many schools can be as simple as uploading a picture of the vaccination card to the student portal.
In Nashville, Vanderbilt University will hold a student’s course enrollment on hold until their vaccination card is verified, unless they have approved medical accommodation or a religious exception.
The University of Michigan said it carried out checks to confirm vaccinations for employees and students. A spokesman told The Associated Press that the school has so far had no problems with students falsifying their COVID-19 vaccination cards.
But Benjamin Mason Meier, professor of global health policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, questions how institutions can review these records.
“Unlike most countries that have electronic systems, the United States bases its vaccination on a flimsy paper card,” he said. “There needs to be accountability guidelines to ensure that every student is acting in the collective interest of the entire campus.”
In a statement to AP, UNC said the institution regularly reviews documents and that lying about vaccination status or falsification of documents is a violation of university standards and can lead to disciplinary action. The school said it had not found any cases of a student uploading a fake vaccination card.
But other university staff and lecturers have also voiced their concern.
Rebecca Williams, a research fellow at the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and UNC’s Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, said while she was concerned about these claims, she was not surprised.
“For this reason, I think the development of a reliable national digital vaccination record app is very important for all organizations and companies that want to require proof of vaccination for employees, students or business customers,” said Williams.
The AP spoke to students across the country who did not want to be identified, but said they were aware of attempts to obtain counterfeit cards.
Some school officials admit that it is impossible to have a foolproof system.
“As with anything that might require certification, there is a possibility that a person could forge documents,” said Michael Uhlenkamp, spokesman for the California State University Chancellery. The school system, the largest in the country, looks after around 486,000 students at 23 locations.
In March, concerns about fake COVID-19 vaccination cards led the FBI to issue a joint statement with the U.S. Department of Health urging people not to buy, manufacture, or sell fabricated vaccination cards. Unauthorized use of the seal of a government agency such as HHS or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a federal crime.
In April, a bipartisan coalition of 47 attorneys general sent a letter to the CEOs of Twitter, Shopify, and eBay to remove ads or links selling the counterfeit cards.
Many of the websites have blacklisted keywords related to counterfeit cards, but messaging apps, chat forums, and the dark web are still popping up places where the documents can be purchased.
Vendors on sites like Counterfeit Center, Jimmy Black Market, and Buy Express Documents have COVID-19 vaccine cards, certificates, and passports for sale, some of which cost 400 euros or about $ 473.49. An advertisement on the Buy Real Fake Passport website promises thousands of fake vaccination cards.
“It’s hiding under our noses. If you want, you can find out, ”said Saoud Khalifah, founder and CEO of Fakespot fraud detection software. “If we see signs that things like Lollapalooza and other festivals are getting counterfeit cards to gain access, the trend in these universities is just going to continue.”
In July, the U.S. Department of Justice announced its first federal criminal prosecution for fraud involving a counterfeit COVID-19 vaccination and vaccination card system. Juli A. Mazi, 41, a naturopathic doctor in Napa, California, was arrested and charged with wire fraud in one case and misrepresentation regarding health matters.
Court documents claim she sold fake vaccination cards to customers who appeared to show they had received Moderna vaccines. In some cases, the documents show that Mazi filled in the cards herself, wrote her own name, and gave Moderna “lot numbers” for a vaccine that she actually did not give. For other customers, she provided blank CDC COVID-19 vaccination cards and asked each customer to write that she had given a Moderna vaccine with a specific batch number.
Requiring vaccinations for attending college and university classes has become a controversial policy issue in some states. Public colleges in at least 13 states, including Ohio, Utah, Tennessee, and Florida, cannot require COVID-19 vaccinations due to state law, but private institutions in the same states can.
Some college students use social media platforms like Twitter and TikTok to express their outrage at other students holding fraudulent vaccination cards.
Maliha Reza, an electrical engineering student at Pennsylvania State University, said it was baffling that if they could get the COVID-19 vaccine for free, students would pay for fake vaccination cards.
“I’m angry about it, like there’s more anger than I could describe right now,” Reza said. “It’s stupid considering the vaccine is free and available across the country.”