With the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine obtaining full FDA approval and President Biden’s sweeping announcement that he will be requiring federal employees, employers with over 100 employees, and many others to require vaccines or frequent testing, there has been a steady rise in the number of employers requiring their employees to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of continued employment. These types of employer mandates, however, are not without significant resistance. Some of that resistance includes employees providing their employers with so-called proof of vaccination status using fake vaccine cards. This is exacerbated by the numerous online forums encouraging and instructing people how to obtain and forge COVID-19 vaccine cards.
By way of background, vaccine cards are distributed by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and, therefore, contain the government seal. The use and forgery of the government seal makes forging a vaccine card illegal under federal law. Specifically, 18 U.S.C. Code § 1017, is clear that using/providing fake or forged vaccination documents, which use a government seal, including those of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) and the CDC, is illegal, leaving the user open to a fine of $5,000 or up to five years imprisonment.
States also have vaccination laws. In June, New York passed a state law making it a crime to possess a phony COVID-19 vaccine card or digital passport and has embraced a vaccination verification app. There is, however, little indication that other states are following New York’s lead in this regard.
The concern over fake COVID-19 vaccination cards has been so overwhelming that the FBI and the HSS issued a joint statement urging people not to buy, create or sell fabricated vaccine cards. However, that has not stopped and is not likely to stop individuals who wish to deceive their employers by attempting to pass these fake documents off as real.
In fact, on August 16, 2021, it was reported that U.S. Customs agents seized more than 121 packages containing approximately 3,000 fake vaccine cards in Memphis, Tennessee. While the vaccine cards are not especially difficult to fake as they come with no hologram, no two-dimensional bar code, no embossed symbol, etc., these fakes were bad…really bad. They included numerous misspellings on the counterfeit documents and unfinished words on the shipping forms. But hey, with pricing for these fake documents starting at just $25 (the Associated Press reported that fake vaccinations cards could cost between $25 to $200 apiece), you get what you pay for. Some more expensive ones are also available and paid for via cryptocurrency to avoid traceability. Interestingly enough, you can get a real one for free.
More recently, Jasmine Clifford, who is also known as (or rather was known as) @AntiVaxMomma on Instagram, was charged with criminal conduct for offering and selling fake COVID-19 vaccination cards, which she advertised through her now-inactive Instagram account. According to the Manhattan district attorney’s office, she was charged with criminal possession of a forged instrument in the second degree and conspiracy in the fifth degree for offering and selling over 250 fake vaccination cards, for which she charged buyers $200 apiece. Buyers could pay @AntiVaxMomma via CashApp or Zelle. More troubling, however, for another $250, she would work with a New York medical clinic employee to go a step further and have people entered into the New York State Immunization Information System database. Of the 250 individuals who bought her fake cards, at least 13 were believed to be frontline employees in hospitals and nursing homes, all of whom were charged with one count of criminal possession of a forged instrument in the first degree.
Regarding the actual use of forged cards, according to USA Today, Chloe Mrozak was arrested at the Honolulu airport for “attempting to bypass the state’s quarantine requirement by submitting falsified vaccination card.” Hawaii’s law allows individuals to bypass the state’s mandatory 10-day quarantine requirement if they show proof of vaccination or present a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than three days before arrival to the state. The kicker? The forged card indicated that she had received the “Maderna” vaccine instead of “Moderna.” One can only speculate what she would have written had she attempted to pass her vaccine off as Pfizer,… maybe Fizur, Fiser, who knows? Maybe she forgot or was unaware of the much easier to spell, and only one dose, Johnson & Johnson option.
Most recently, three Vermont state troopers resigned their employment after being accused of making fake COVID-19 vaccination cards, prompting a federal investigation.
In any event, while some forgeries are easy to spot, such as the ones discussed above that have significant content errors, blank cards that are the size and weight of the real vaccine cards are easily found online, meaning spotting a fake card can be problematic and not easy. Here is a video about how to spot fake vaccine cards.
For employers with vaccine policies, whether mandatory or voluntarily, when rolling out such a policy, it is wise to inform your employees that falsifying a vaccine card is a federal crime with severe penalties to discourage such fraudulent activity from the start and to inform employees of the serious nature of the matter.
It is also worth reviewing your employee handbook and, to the extent you have a provision that prohibits employees from engaging in fraud, lying, and similar conduct at work, remind them of the disciplinary penalty that may be levied in the event they violate the workplace policy, including termination.
The fact is, people are using fake cards, and employers and co-workers could rely on those fake cards and have a false sense of security about other measures they need to be taking to protect themselves, their workforces, co-workers, and their families. The penalties are serious because the issue is serious – life and death serious.
About the Author:
Sara H. Jodka (Member, Columbus) is a member of the firm’s labor and employment department and regularly counsels employers and litigates all types of employment-related cases. She has worked closely with business clients regards to COVID-19 employment-related matters since the beginning of the pandemic. She is also a dual-certified privacy professional holding both IAPP-US and IAPP-Europe certifications. Sara is the editor of the firm’s All Things HR Blog and the Chair of the Ohio State Bar Association’s Labor and Employment Section Council, which boasts over 1,700 members. She can be reached at 614-744-2943 or SJodka@dickinsonwright.com.