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Justice departments across the country began cracking down on COVID-related fraud this summer, bringing charges against those involved with producing, selling and buying fake COVID-19 vaccination cards.
Whether defendants realized it or not, those vaccination cards are distributed by a federal agency—U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So, they will face federal charges, likely along with state charges, which can include years of jail time if convicted.
On August 31, 2021, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., filed charges in Manhattan Criminal Court against 15 individuals involved in a fake COVID-19 vaccination card conspiracy. Two of the 15 defendants are being prosecuted for selling and forging the cards; the 13 purchasers were also charged.
The combined charges against the sellers include one count each:
- Criminal Possession of a Forged Instrument in the Second Degree, a class D felony.
- Offering a False Instrument for Filing in the First Degree, a class E felony.
- Conspiracy in the Fifth Degree, a class A misdemeanor.
DA Vance noted in a public statement the substantial evidence that many of the defendants, including one seller, are believed to work in public-facing or other essential-employee settings—including hospitals, medical/nursing schools and nursing homes.
That belief was certainly the case two weeks earlier in August, when a pharmacist in Chicago, Illinois was arrested for having sold 125 authentic CDC vaccination cards to 11 different buyers for approximately $10 per card earlier in the year. If convicted, the defendant faces a sentence of 10 years in prison for the 12 counts of theft of government property, according to the Department of Justice.
And in Colorado, a local Fox News undercover team staged a transaction with a replacement card-seller who had been advertising on a firearm website in September. The reporters alerted the Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser and the F.B.I.
Broader Criminal Law Implications
Victoria M. Almeida is senior counsel at Adler Pollock & Sheehan in Rhode Island, co-chair of its Government Relations Practice Group and has decades of experience in criminal law. She said the pandemic, like other major crises, has inadvertently created the platform for new crimes.
“Although opportunistic people are inevitable during a public health crisis, the vast majority of those who commit pandemic-related offenses do not comprehend or appreciate the significance of their actions,” said Almeida, who was named the Best Lawyers® “Lawyer of the Year” for Government Relations in Rhode Island for 2022. “These offenses are oftentimes crimes of convenience, where the wrongdoer does not reflect on the consequences of their conduct. Unfortunately, the only way to change this mistaken perception is to inform the public of the consequences of these actions, which generally requires active prosecution and serious criminal penalties.”
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein was one of many elected officials to warn of the greater societal impact of buying and selling fake CDC cards. He stated his intention to prevent the sale of falsified cards in his state.
“When people try to fake their vaccination status with a fraudulent vaccine card, they’re putting themselves, their loved ones and their communities at risk and prolonging this public health crisis for all of us,” said Stein, who is also the vice president of the National Association of Attorneys General.
The fake vaccination card charges differ from other crimes of defrauding the government, Almeida said, since the defendants share the same philosophy and do not belong to any one section of the population.
“What is so unique about fraud involving vaccination cards is that…it transcends generation, race and wealth,” noted Almeida, who formerly served as Vice Chair of the Rhode Island Parole Board. “Since vaccine cards became mandatory in many public and private institutions, the country has seen fake vaccination cards from students at universities, employees in corporate settings and from medical workers in nursing homes and other healthcare facilities.
“And now that the FDA looks poised to approve the vaccine for young children, it is only a matter of time before some parents seek fake vaccination cards for them. Ultimately, the diversity of these wrongdoers only makes it more difficult to find and prosecute those who present fake identification.”
Justin Smulison is a professional writer who regularly contributes to Best Lawyers. He was previously a reporter for the New York Law Journal and also led content and production for the Custom Projects Group at ALM Media. In addition to his various credited and uncredited writing projects, he has developed global audiences hosting and producing podcasts and audio interviews for professional organizations and music sites.