A surge in COVID-19 cases in Israel is fueling a black market for counterfeit coronavirus tests and vaccination certificates, with some selling for a few hundred dollars each.
In fact, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have subscribed to groups on Telegram, an instant messaging app, that allegedly sell fake documentation to anti-vaxxers and those who are vaccine-hesitant.
One group, “Green Pass and Vaccination Certificate,” has over 166,000 subscribers. Run by an anonymous user named “Professor Photoshop,” buyers are told that payment is only required upon receipt of their document of choice. Another group, which has 212,000 subscribers, claimed to already have served “over 500 happy customers.”
Yet another group, with under 2,000 subscribers, listed the prices for falsified papers; beginning at 1,000 NIS ($310) for one “passport,” it offered discounts for each additional vaccine passport purchased.
Israel Police told The Media Line that officers are conducting a number of investigations, some covert, into the coronavirus documentation black market.
“We are aware of the phenomenon of people selling and buying these [fakes],” said Ziv Sagiv, deputy police chief and head of the investigations division. “But whoever buys these things is simply spending money on a piece of paper that isn’t worth anything because it’s very easy to catch a forgery.”
We took them in for questioning and opened a criminal record both for forgery and for the act of obtaining a fraudulent document
Last week, 23 people were detained after they attempted to fly from Israel to New York with forged COVID-19 test results. Travelers flying to most destinations from Ben-Gurion Airport are required to present a negative coronavirus test as well as proof of vaccination.
According to a statement released by the Health Ministry and Israel Police, the passengers in question were removed from the United Airlines flight and taken for questioning by police.
They were later released on bail, but face criminal charges and possible jail time, according to Sagiv.
“We took them in for questioning and opened a criminal record both for forgery and for the act of obtaining a fraudulent document,” he said.
Most of the recent cases the police have uncovered are linked to Telegram. However, Israel’s Green Pass and vaccine certificates contain a QR Code, which is more difficult to forge than other types of documentation, Sagiv said.
“Every Green Pass has a bar code and the Ministry of Health’s [mobile] application is able to read that bar code,” he explained. “As soon as the app scans the bar code, it can tell if it is real or fake.”
Most buyers spend large sums of money on paperwork that either never materializes or that is of such poor quality that they are immediately recognized as fakes, he added. Some sellers are scam artists who simply disappear once they receive payment.
Sagiv called on all those eligible to do so to go and get vaccinated and not to endanger the lives of others with counterfeit documents. Buying and selling fakes will result in an immediate criminal record, he warned.
“Whoever forges a document can be sentenced to three years in prison – and if it was done under aggravating circumstances it can go up to five years in prison,” Sagiv said. “The act of obtaining a fraudulent document is a different offense, and also carries a three-year prison sentence or five years under aggravating circumstances.”
The black market for COVID-19 papers on Telegram is booming not only in Israel, but also worldwide as pressures mount for the public to get vaccinated, according to cyberthreat experts at Check Point Research (CPR).
In a report released late last week, CPR said that there was a 257% jump in the number of sellers using Telegram to promote fake vaccination cards since March. Counterfeit CDC, NHS and EU Digital COVID-19 certificates are on sale for as little as $100.
Similar to the ones found in Israel, many of these international illicit Telegram groups have hundreds of thousands of subscribers.
“In the beginning [of the vaccination campaign] we only saw a small amount of those fake certificates because they were not really necessary,” Liad Mizrachi, senior security researcher at Check Point Software Technologies, told The Media Line.
Mizrachi was referring to how proof of vaccination was not initially required for public spaces in most countries earlier this year. As that began to shift and restrictions tightened, the number of forgeries being sold rose in tandem.
CPR currently is cooperating with several international law enforcement agencies to track the counterfeiters, including Interpol.
“We are helping them to track those groups and forwarding information about the [sellers],” Mizrachi said. “The assumption is that it is the same people who are doing fake passports, fake licenses, fake IDs –they have the infrastructure and the knowledge. It’s probably not even a challenge for them.”
These criminal elements, which in the past relied on the darknet to sell their wares, have increasingly moved to Telegram because it is much more readily accessible to the general public.
Only the implementation of a global vaccine passport system will be able to really put a dent in the black market, Mizrachi asserted.
“I don’t see any other way,” he said.