Fake Vaccine Cards Can Lead to Criminal Penalties
It has come to the attention of the federal government that people are intentionally making, selling, purchasing, and possessing fake vaccine cards, and the government is not amused. Many businesses, industries, and events require their guests to flash valid COVID-19 vaccination cards, and some people are skirting the issue with fake docs. Still, other unscrupulous types are turning a buck by producing fraudulent vaccine cards in mass quantities and selling them for massive profits. However you slice these activities, they amount to fraud, and the government is becoming more attuned to the issue.
Creating the Card
You may think that scribbling a few numbers, a provider sight, and a couple of dates on a small paper card isn’t a big deal, but the federal government takes a different view – and the act could be a federal and/or a state crime. In fact, the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has issued a scam alert in relation to COVID-based fraud to the public at large. The exact crime charged and potential penalties depend upon the scope of the operation, the jurisdiction involved, and more, but ultimately, the prosecutors in these cases are tasked with proving wrongful or fraudulent intentions.
Consider Yourself Warned
Federal prosecutors have made it clear that engaging in activities associated with fake vaccine cards can lead to serious penalties. The COVID-19 vaccine cards are emblazoned with the official seal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and transferring counterfeit cards that contain this seal is a felony (under federal law), and a conviction can lead to up to five years in federal prison. The same applies to purchasing, procuring, or using a fake vaccination card (when it is known to be fake).
It is similarly illegal to unlawfully use a legitimate COVID-19 vaccine card, and similar penalties apply. Because the federal government ordered the vaccine cards – and contracted for them – in the first place, federal prosecutors argue that the cards are the property of the federal government. Stealing or modifying government property for one’s own use amounts to a federal crime. This means that converting a legitimate vaccine card (that was not issued to you) for your own purposes is a crime. Other examples of illegal activity related to vaccine cards include:
Stealing legitimate vaccine cards from a hospital or healthcare facility
the forging of information on legitimate vaccine cards (and sale of the cards for profit) by medical professionals
Wire and Mail Fraud
When criminal activities such as these happen via the mail, or electronically, federal mail and wire fraud charges may apply. Such laws amount to something of a catch-all for fraudulent schemes of every stripe that are carried out by using interstate mail services or wire communications, which include activities conducted online or over the phone. Therefore, receiving or sending a fraudulent vaccine card in the mail is a form of mail fraud, and so is accepting electronic payment, such as via Venmo, PayPal, or Zelle, for a forged COVID vaccine card. Completing a transfer of a fake card via text or email is also illegal.
At the State Level
The State of Texas also has laws on the books that can apply to the use, sale, creation, and/or transfer of fraudulent vaccine cards.
Forgery covers a broad spectrum of illegal conduct that includes producing, selling, using, or possessing a forged document for fraudulent purposes, such as for ID (to enter a music venue, for example). Everyone involved in the process, including the person who makes the card, the person who sells the card, and the person who knowingly uses the fraudulent card, engages in illegal activity related to forgery. The charges and penalties for those who make and sell forged documents are typically heftier than they are for those who are in possession of the documents.
Stealing legitimate vaccine cards can lead to theft charges, and while such charges are typically based on the value of the item stolen, theft of a government document, such as a vaccine card, is considered mitigating and can lead to harsher charges and penalties.
When two or more people come together in the planning and commission of a crime, it is considered a conspiracy, and the crime does not even have to be committed for the charge to stick. If a buyer and a seller of vaccine cards, for example, make a plan via text to engage in a sale, the plan can be thwarted by the authorities (before the sale takes place and money changes hands), but the charge of conspiracy can still be levied against both (in addition to charges related to the creation or procurement of the forged documents in question).
On the Ground in the State of Texas
NBC affiliate KXAN in Texas shares some of the ways fake vaccines are finding their way into the state, including:
On the Telegram app, there is a group that calls itself Texas Vaccination Card CDC, which has about 4,100 members, and their game involves anonymous sellers who provide falsified vaccine cards, immunization records, and fit-to-fly certificates for an undisclosed amount that must be paid in bitcoin.
Another group that blatantly calls itself Fake Vaccine Cards has more than 73,000 subscribers, and its hook involves selling fake vaccine cards to help buyers stay safe (from the vaccine).
Fake cards are being marketed throughout the state on craigslist, eBay, Instagram, Twitter, and beyond.
One Texas seller of fraudulent vaccine cards shared with the station that he had sold 40 falsified CDC cards for $60 a pop, including (according to the man) selling a few to nurses, flight attendants, and those involved in offshore drilling, who were all opposed to receiving the vaccine.
COVID-19 Fraud Is on the Rise
Because COVID-19 fraud is on the rise, the federal government’s scam alert includes a list of things you can do to help protect yourself from such fraud, including:
Do not make or buy fake vaccine cards, and do not fill out blank vaccine cards with falsified information.
Volunteers are canvassing neighborhoods to help better inform communities about the benefits of the vaccine, but you should not provide them – or anyone else other than in an official capacity – with personal medical, financial, or identifying information. If they are legitimate, they will not ask for this kind of information.
COVID-19 survey scams are also on the rise. Do not provide personal information to anyone who claims to offer money or gifts in exchange for such information. Legitimate surveys are anonymous and will not ask for personal, identifying information.
Do not provide anyone claiming to offer COVID-related HHS grants any personal information.
Only receive vaccines from trusted sources.
Any offers related to the purchase of COVID-19 cards are scams. Valid cards can only be obtained from legitimate providers who actually administer the vaccines.
Anyone who works with COVID-19 materials, including vials, container boxes, syringes, vaccine record cards, and/or shipment or track records, should be careful to dispose of all used materials properly. Bad actors are on the prowl for such items (to be used for fraudulent purposes).
Do not share pictures of your COVID-19 vaccination card on social media. Posting content that identifies you personally is a setup for identity theft.
Let your natural suspicion be your guide, and if you are not naturally suspicious, it is time to acquire a healthy dose of it. If you receive suspicious calls, hang up, and do not accept visitors hawking anything COVID-related.
Only open hyperlinks related to COVID when they originate from a source you trust.
Offers and advertisements for COVID-19 testing and/or treatments on social media sites should be ignored, and if you make a COVID test appointment online, it is important to make sure that the location is legit prior to arrival.
Remember that legitimate contract tracers will not ask for information like your Medicare number or for financial information in general.
Finally, if you suspect COVID-related fraud, report it immediately by contacting or calling the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at 800-HHS-TIPS (800-447-8477).
State vs. Federal Crimes
Fraud related to COVID-19 vaccines could lead to state or federal charges, and distinguishing between the two is important. State legislators pass the laws that define the crimes and lay out the penalties in the State of Texas, while Congress does the same for the nation at large. Most crimes are prosecuted at the state level. Federal crimes must, in some way, be tied to a national concern. Examples include:
Trafficking in contraband
Federal tax fraud
Crimes that are committed on federal property
Some acts are only crimes at the federal level, but most activity that is criminal at the federal level is also criminal at the state level. While the federal government must have some stake in crimes at the federal level, their interest is broadly defined, and the federal government has jurisdiction in all the following matters:
Crimes Involving Fraud, Deception, or Misrepresentation on the Federal Government or on One of Its Agencies – Examples include federal tax fraud, Medicaid fraud, and fraud related to Small Business Administration Loans.
Crimes on Federal Land or Involving a Federal Officer – A murder in a national forest, an assault against an FBI agent, and a robbery on a military base are all examples of federal crimes.
Immigration and Customs Violations – Any criminal activity that relates to immigration and/or customs is under the jurisdiction of the federal government. Examples include human trafficking at the international level and the importation of child pornography.
Crimes in Which the Accused Crosses State Lines – Internet schemes are prime examples of fraud that almost universally crosses state lines (because the perpetrators and victims tend to be far-flung).
Prosecution at Both the State and Federal Level
It is a rare occurrence, but there is no constitutional bar to prosecuting at both the state and federal levels (if the criminal act in question violates laws at both levels). You may be wondering about the double jeopardy clause that ensures we cannot be tried more than once for the same crime, and while this is an important component of our criminal justice system, there is also a separate sovereign exception. Because states and the federal government are separate from one another, they amount to separate sovereignties that can each prosecute (for the same crime). A famous example is the four police officers who were acquitted by a California court in 1992 for the severe beating of Rodney King. Later, however, federal prosecutors charged the same officers with violating the victim’s constitutional rights, and two of them were convicted. In practice, however, dual prosecutions are very rare due to the limited resources at both the state and federal levels.
Federal Crime and Punishment
The penalties that attend federal crimes vary – just like they do at the state level. The federal government employs advisory federal sentencing guidelines, and nearly all federal judges adhere to these guidelines when sentencing those convicted of federal crimes. In general, federal penalties are longer than they are under state jurisdiction. Federal drug crimes, in particular, are known for imposing mandatory sentencing minimums that are exceptionally harsh. Those convicted by federal courts go to federal prisons, and those convicted by state courts go to state prisons – or jails (depending upon the sentence).
It’s Time to Consult with an Experienced Killeen Criminal Attorney
Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard in Killeen, Texas, is a practiced criminal attorney who takes great pride in his stellar track record of helping clients like you obtain favorable resolutions in the face of criminal charges. Your case is important, and we are on your side and here to help, so please do not hesitate to reach out by contacting us online or calling us at 254-501-4040 for more information today.