WESLEY CHAPEL, Fla. — Paper certificates issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide proof for millions of people who have received COVID-19 vaccinations — but there is a growing black market for counterfeit vaccination certificates.
A man who lives in the Tampa Bay region recently lost his job after he was called out online for trying to sell blank CDC vaccination documents.
“This is the greatest scientific achievement in history getting these vaccines rolled out,” said Tampa Wedding and Events Planner Brooke Palmer Kuhl, whose sister is an epidemiologist.
Kuhl was so excited to get her COVID-19 vaccination that she proudly posted pictures on Facebook.
“We need to be able to get back to work. We need to be able to travel. I wanted to be able to hug my parents,” Kuhl said.
Kuhl is among thousands who displayed CDC vaccination cards on social media like winning lottery tickets.
To some, those 4-by-3 inch cards could be just as valuable, potentially allowing people to return to work, fly certain places or board cruise ships.
“In order for us to have our freedoms in society here in the United States or around the world, we may need either negative COVID tests or vaccine proof,” said Brian Linder, an emerging threats expert for Check Point Software.
A buzz of activity on the dark web
Linder says ads for counterfeit COVID-19 test results and vaccination certificates are blowing up on the dark web.
“There’s a buzz of activity there. So why are people advertising there? Because they know that people will come,” Linder said.
The dark web is like the wild west of the internet — an unregulated marketplace where consumers can use bitcoin to buy things like drugs, child sexual abuse material, weapons or phony documents.
“In the dark web, $25 gets you a negative COVID-19 test and $200 gets you what looks like an authentic CDC vaccine card,” Linder said.
Linder says that aside from threatening public health, cybercriminals are making money from their customers by reselling their names, dates of birth, emails and home addresses.
He also cautions against posting pictures of the cards on social media, saying that can also give private information to criminals.
Counterfeit vaccination documents are showing up for sale on mainstream websites as well.
Man loses job over TikTok video
James Koncar, a 26-year-old internet marketing specialist at Thirteen-05 creative in Tampa, allegedly posted on TikTok that he had CDC vaccination cards for sale.
Another user on the site, Mississippi pharmacist Savannah Malm, posted a video calling him out.
“Let’s read the description, shall we? Selling blank COVID vaccine cards. DM me,” Malm said in her video. “Now James, do you think it’s smart to advertise that you not only forge medical documents but that you also have the intent to distribute them?”
Malm took down her video from TikTok, but it was reposted on Twitter, where it has been more than 210,000 views.
“We are aware of the allegations against one of our employees. This employee has been terminated as we have concluded a swift review of his actions, ” Thirteen-05 Creative tweeted after the video was posted.
The company declined further comment.
According to public records, Koncar lives in a gated neighborhood in Wesley Chapel, Florida. Since he was fired, he has deactivated all of his social media accounts. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Koncar has not been charged with any crime in connection with his recent post.
“We are aware of this instance, but we do not currently have an investigation open on this individual,” a Pasco County Sheriff’s spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
“While the FBI does not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation, we want to assure the public the FBI remains committed to pursuing those exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to perpetrate fraud schemes,” a Tampa-area FBI spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Long before his TikTok post, James Koncar was considered a hero. When he was 19, Koncar was named first runner-up for the “Be More Positive Award,” presented by Scripps station WFTS in Tampa.
Koncar had found more than $700 a customer dropped in a grocery store parking lot and turned it over to a manager, so it could be returned to its rightful owner.
CDC vaccination cards can’t be tracked
Security experts say one reason fraud is rampant is that the CDC cards are easy to forge and can’t be tracked like passports or driver’s licenses.
“We were in such a rush, and understandably so as a country, to get these vaccines done that the idea of making them digitally verifiable was an afterthought,” Linder said. “We’re gonna have hundreds of millions of vaccination doses administered in a matter of a very short period of time and I think we’re in a challenge now to catch up on that.”
President Joe Biden says tracking vaccines will be left up to private companies or states. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has already signed an executive order prohibiting so-called "vaccination passports" last week.
“I think this is something that has huge privacy implications. It is not necessary to do," DeSantis said.
Kuhl says people should not look for shortcuts when it comes to getting vaccinated.
“It’s just super important to protect your health and the health of others,” Kuhl said, reminding people that it’s no longer difficult to get a vaccine and it’s free.
The CDC did not immediately respond to questions asking if the agency plans to make any changes to the cards to make forgeries less likely.
This story was originally published by Adam Walser on WFTS in Tampa.