A hidden pandemic market advertising fake vaccine and test certificates for as little as £25 has grown exponentially, with more than 1,200 vendors in the UK and worldwide, researchers have found.
After UK ministers announced the return of overseas holidays – with travellers required to show proof of negative tests, and vaccine passports on the horizon – the Guardian has also learned that anti-vaxxers and people arriving in Britain from poorer nations make up a significant number of those buying forged pandemic paraphernalia.
Last month MPs were told that more than 100 people a day are trying to enter the UK using fake Covid test certificates as individuals attempt to get around current entry requirements, which include tests before and after travel and can cost individuals hundreds of pounds.
Israel-based researchers found evidence of forgeries of vaccine cards by the NHS and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) alongside fake test certificates, all available for sale on the dark web and through easy-to-access platforms including the messaging apps WhatsApp, Telegram and Jabber.
Products purported to be Covid vaccines and treatments are also offered, according to Oded Vanunu and Liad Mizrachi of the cybersecurity firm Check Point.
The researchers detected about 20 dark web vendors by November last year, which grew to 600 in January and more than 1,200 by March. The darknet is a network within the internet that can only be accessed with specific software. There are also multiple channels on Telegram, an encrypted messaging service, some of which have in excess of 1,000 subscribers.
Ministers recently unveiled details of a “traffic light” system for holidays, setting criteria for leisure travel from Monday. Travellers arriving from green-list countries will be required to take at least two tests, each costing an average of £128, according to data from travel industry experts, while amber- and red-list arrivals require at least three.
Union officials have reported that UK border workers are catching about 100 people a day brandishing fake test certificates. A Border Force official told the Guardian the majority of travellers being caught as they arrive in the UK with fake negative Covid test certificates were from poorer nations, including African, South American and Asian countries.
Mizrachi, senior researcher at Check Point, said anti-vaxxers – individuals who refuse to take the vaccine on the grounds of baseless conspiracy theories and spread dangerous disinformation – are among those buying the forged certificates.
“We have all the people against vaccinations,” he said. “These two groups are combining perfectly together. ‘I don’t want to get vaccinated,’ [and] someone says: ‘Hey, you can get your vaccine certificate here.’ It’s significant.”
Vanunu, head of product vulnerability research at Check Point, said: “Since the start of the epidemic in 2020, we started to see the darknet produce supply channels for things related to Covid. At the beginning, it was offering the accessories that were missing: the masks, the protective equipment. There was a lot of discussion about treatments. We started to see these drugs for sale on the darknet.”
In October last year, Vanunu said they started to see vendors offering vaccines – mostly the Chinese-made Sinovac and Russian-produced Sputnik jabs. Later in the year, they saw Pfizer and Moderna jabs being offered, though the researchers have questioned the authenticity of the products due to the logistical challenges in storing the Pfizer and Moderna jabs at low temperatures.
Vanunu and Mizrachi tried to buy a vaccine from one vendor and paid using cryptocurrency, but the product never surfaced and the vendor vanished. “As at March, vendors were supplying from all the countries in Europe – Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden … [plus] Mexico, Australia,” Vanunu said. “After vaccinations, the next step was the certificates and negative tests.”
The researchers showed the Guardian an easy method for purchasing the NHS vaccine cards issued to individuals who have received their jab. Save for a few minor punctuation errors, the cards bear a strong likeness to the genuine article. Similarly, the US equivalent at the CDC is widely available.
The researchers said individuals who proudly post images of themselves holding the cards on social media unwittingly provide the source for forgeries. Without an official global database recording individuals’ vaccination status, the system will be open to fakes and forgery, Vanunu said.
Mizrachi showed an open-web platform for purchasing so-called “prank” negative Covid tests for £25. The site showcases repeated disclaimers warning that the certificates are not to be used formally – but they bear an uncanny similarity to the real thing.
Earlier this year, Europol, the EU’s cross-border law enforcement agency, warned that scammers were producing and selling fake negative coronavirus test certificates in airports, stations and online around Europe. Local trading standards bodies and individual police forces have issued their own warnings against the use of the forgeries, and called for individuals to report them.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Border Force is checking that every passenger has complied with current health measures when arriving at the border.
“Providing falsified documents is against the law. Border Force officers are trained to detect falsified and counterfeit documents and have the right to refuse entry and issue [a] £500 fine to any visitor they believe has travelled to the UK using fraudulent Covid test certificates.
“Individuals who fail to comply with their legal duty to quarantine at home following international travel can be fined £1,000, increasing to £10,000 for repeat offences.”