One steamy night in early August, 20-year-old Henry and his friends prepared to hit the Greenwich Village bar scene, armed with fake IDs that said they were of legal drinking age. As they approached one bouncer, they produced the IDs and vaccination cards now required for entry — and were turned away. The bouncer made it clear why: The birth dates on their IDs and vaccine cards didn’t match.
Henry was fully vaccinated in May and, like many other 20-somethings, relished the idea of a bacchanalian summer free of any worry. Then came Delta and, in response, New York City’s vaccine requirement to enter bars, restaurants, and other such venues. After getting bounced, Henry and his friends thought they might have to wait out the mandates or hold off on barhopping until they turned 21, but, as they saw it, too much of their youth had already been unfairly lost to the pandemic. According to Henry, they were left with no alternative but to forge proof of vaccination that corresponded with the birth dates on their fake IDs.
It wasn’t long before Henry was put in touch with a doctor who sold him a CDC card with his real name and a 21-year-old birth date for $200. Others in Henry’s circle have had to get more creative. “I know a lot of people are editing their Excelsior app or pictures of their actual vaccination cards,” said Henry, who spoke on the condition we use a pseudonym, like many others in this story. “Some of us, you know, we’re really good with Photoshop.”
As vaccine mandates proliferate, the black market for counterfeit cards has boomed. In the city, both the unvaccinated and vaccinated under-21 variety have been procuring cards ahead of the city’s deadline to begin enforcing its mandate for patrons and employees on Monday. Supplying them is a word-of-mouth network made up of friends, co-workers, drug dealers, and unscrupulous doctors. And, at least among Gen-Z, there isn’t much by way of judgment. When I reached out to several people in my inner and outer circle, most of whom are vaccinated, to ask if they could assist me in acquiring a counterfeit card, I received little to no follow-up questions or outrage. The response was largely understanding, supportive, even sympathetic. “I know a guy,” one friend joked before clarifying, “No, but actually, I really do.”
Bars and restaurants are a prime target of the vaccine mandates, but, in spite of or because of that, it appears workers are only becoming savvier at evading them. A 21-year-old East Village bartender called Dana said she isn’t vaccinated and neither are many people working in her industry. “Every single time I go to a bar,” she said, “there is someone that I know or can sense is not vaccinated.” What’s more, employers haven’t given her or her co-workers any specifics to look for on patrons’ vaccination cards, merely asking that Dana and her co-workers use their discretion.
“I’ve never had a shot in my life,” Dana said proudly, telling me both her parents are doctors from outside the U.S., and she grew up all over the world, in “places where vaccinations are less of a thing.” Her circle is left-leaning, not at all the types to deny science, but they are wary of how quickly the vaccine’s been administered to the public. “It’s just very confusing as a young person,” she sighed, “with so many people telling you what you should and shouldn’t do with your body.”
What’s evidently not confusing is where and how to acquire a faux card. Dana said that she was recently out with a friend who, upon learning she wasn’t vaccinated, asked for her birthday, texted his friend, and “within a minute” supplied her with a Photoshopped QR code to mimic the state’s Excelsior Pass. Except there was no need: Dana already secured a fake card from her co-worker, who sold it to her after he supposedly swiped a stack of cards while getting his shot, when the administrator’s back was turned. “It’s kind of like buying weed before it was legal,” she laughed. “Everyone knows someone that has weed.”
Indeed, some of the fake cards are being provided by drug dealers. “Business is very, very good,” said Alan, a counterfeit-card purveyor who also peddles weed and coke. “Too good. I need a vacation.” I found him on a Facebook anti-vaccination group and he reluctantly agreed to meet over a frozen margarita at a kitschy Bushwick bar.
“You know, I saw this coming in March,” he said, adding that in his line of work, you have to be able to anticipate the market. In the spring, as the vaccine gave vast swaths of New Yorkers confidence to mingle for the first time in over a year, Alan predicted fake vaccination cards would soon follow. At first, they appeared on the dark web, according to Check Point, one of the largest cybersecurity firms in the U.S. Then, the market moved mainstream to apps such as Telegram and Facebook Messenger, the likes of which Alan uses almost exclusively to run his business, relying mostly on referrals to bolster his clientele. Working off Alan’s forecast, he and his anonymous boss began reaching out to “the doctors” in late spring, soliciting access to blank cards and the state’s immunization system where people’s names can be added, initially charging $150 a pop and later upping the price to $250 as demand swelled. An apparent catch-all for medical professionals, Alan seems somewhat aggrieved by “the doctors.” It’s the doctors, he tells me, that insist on being paid in bitcoin and keep upping their prices.
Alan and Henry’s doctors aren’t the only ones in the game. A few weeks ago, a Chicago pharmacist was charged with theft of government property after allegedly selling 125 authentic CDC cards for a sum of $1,200. Last month, 13 hospital and nursing-home workers in New York were charged by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for allegedly possessing forged cards they bought off Instagram for $200 each. Prosecutors allege their purveyor was a self-described entrepreneur who operated as @AntiVaxMomma, and her accomplice was a medical-clinic worker, who put customers’ names into New York’s vaccination database for an extra $250.
Still, word-of-mouth seems to be the primary way a lot of people like Dana are getting fake cards. Another woman, Lauren, ordered her card from a seller that a friend referred her to on WhatsApp. The merchandise had just come in the mail when we spoke. “I’m sort of scared to open it,” she said. Lauren just entered her third trimester and, like Henry and Dana, said she’s no anti-vaxxer. “I don’t think there’s a chip in there or anything like that,” she laughs. “I just, you know, trust myself with my baby more than I trust the government.”
And officials are about done trying to win over people’s trust, instead turning to ever-stricter mandates, such as President Biden’s order that would compel the employers of some 100 million Americans to ensure their workforces are vaccinated. As a result, according to Check Point spokesperson Ekram Ahmed, traffic to fake-card vendors has spiked where more stringent mandates are in place. “We see it growing every single day,” he said. In just the last month, Check Point has seen the number of U.S. vendors on Telegram grow from about 1,000 to over 10,000. In addition to the U.S, the U.K. and Singapore have also become meccas for forgeries. “These days,” Ahmed said, “you can get a fake card for any country in the world.”
As counterfeits grow, authorities will likely create harder-to-forge certificates, perhaps ones with encryption, and make checking their record against a database easier. “Human beings are the weakest link in the security chain,” Ahmed said. “The first way to combat this is by enacting policy that requires digitization of proof of vaccination. Added levels of security is the step after that.” Dana predicts none of that will matter. “People aren’t going to stop living their lives because the government is making it harder for them,” she insisted. “I promise you. We’re gonna figure out a way.”
“People wanna go out,” Alan the card dealer said simply when I asked why he thought cards were circulating at the rate they are. “They want to relax. You can’t take away people’s right to relax.”