Americans who refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccination are increasingly discovering that there are personal consequences to their actions that go beyond their own health and the health of those around them. A growing number of venues, including restaurants, clubs, theaters, and gyms, now require patrons to show their COVID vaccination cards before they can enter the premises, as do many employers and colleges. In response, some people have begun to seek out fake vaccination cards.
To be clear, there is simply no justification for any American to seek a counterfeit COVID-19 vaccine card given that the vaccine itself is free, safe, and effective. But it is also against federal law to buy, use, or sell fraudulent documents bearing the seal of a federal agency—in this case, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) seal that appears on vaccination cards—and those who attempt to do so can face steep fines and up to five years in prison. (Some states, like New York and New Jersey, are considering new laws that would also make possessing or forging fake vaccination cards a state-level crime.)
Law enforcement agencies are right to crack down on both those using and distributing these fake vaccination cards. For example, a Florida couple was arrested this month after submitting falsified COVID-19 vaccination records to government officials to travel to Hawaii, the latest in a string of incidents involving Americans using fake vaccination cards. And the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has already seized thousands of counterfeit vaccination cards from China this year. Most of these are low-quality forgeries with typos and missing words that make them easy to distinguish from real ones. As one CBP officer stated, “If you do not wish to receive a vaccine, that is your decision. But don’t order a counterfeit, waste my officer’s time, break the law, and misrepresent yourself.”
Some want to place the blame for the availability of fake vaccination cards on online retailers. While there have been a few headlines about an occasional rogue vendor selling vaccination cards on Amazon, Etsy, and eBay, these sites have all taken action to promptly remove those listings. Regardless, some advocacy groups have begun to argue that Congress should pass legislation requiring e-commerce platforms to verify the identities of sellers on their platforms in order to crack down on this type of fraud. But the fact that a few people have bought these online is a red herring—people have also bought and sold them at bars and nobody is calling for better vetting of bartenders.
The real problem is that the vaccination cards themselves are easily replicated at home by anyone with a printer. Legitimate vaccination cards are nothing more than a piece of paper with handwritten notations—it does not take a master forger to duplicate these forms. Indeed, authorities can usually only detect fraud when people make obvious errors, such as producing vaccine cards for children too young for the vaccine or using vaccination dates from before the vaccines were even available.
As long as these vaccine records remain only on paper, they serve little use. The better solution would be for states to implement digital vaccine passports that link up to state vaccination records, like New York’s Excelsior Pass that allows residents to securely prove their vaccination status or negative test result from their mobile device. Unfortunately, a number of states have preemptively banned vaccine passports which means national adoption of digital vaccine passports remains a pipedream for now. Another solution would be for the government to issue electronic IDs—a secure way for individuals to electronically prove their identity or aspects of their identity using a mobile device or smart card. If consumers had access to an electronic ID, they would not need a separate vaccine passport because they could simply add their vaccination status to their ID as a new attestation. While some states have begun to introduce digital driver’s licenses, few states have made significant progress yet, and federal initiatives are moving slowly.
Targeting online marketplaces with new verification requirements would impose unnecessary costs on consumers, sellers, and marketplaces and completely fail to stem the use of fake vaccination cards. If Congress is serious about stopping fake vaccination cards, it should put pressure on states to permit and deploy digital vaccine passports, accelerate the development of electronic IDs, or develop a federal digital vaccine passport available to all Americans.
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