Customs and Border Protection officials in Chicago seized multiple shipments of fake vaccine cards en route from China to Texas on Monday, as anti-vaxxers continue to attempt to skirt vaccine mandates around the country.
In addition to the fake vaccine cards, which were labeled in shipment logs as greeting cards, CBP officials also seized multiple packages from China and Mexico containing Ivermectin pills, a horse medicine that many anti-vaxxers have been taking as a way to treat or prevent COVID-19, according to a CBP announcement.
Prescriptions for Ivermectin have been difficult to obtain in the U.S.—scientists have warned against using it as a treatment, and there’s no evidence that it’s an effective coronavirus cure—and shortages of Ivermectin for horses, which can be obtained over-the-counter, has sent some people hunting for the goods abroad.
One of the seized Ivermectin packages falsely claimed to contain decorative beads in an apparent attempt to get past U.S. authorities. But the subterfuge failed when CBP officials more closely examined the shipment, X-rayed it, and notified the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigation of the seizure.
It’s the latest development in an ongoing death spiral of anti-vaxxers who refuse to get the life-saving coronavirus vaccine but who are increasingly facing both requirements to show proof of vaccination as well as deadly infections they desperately want to fight without being vaccinated.
Attempting to prove vaccination without getting the jab itself could be as simple as printing out cards that look like the cards from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, analysts have noted. But criminals have stepped in with their own elaborate scams to send shipments to the United States, and some Americans in Texas appear to have bought it, according to the CBP.
It’s a workaround that U.S. officials are trying to nip in the bud, and already CBP has seized thousands of counterfeit COVID-19 vaccine cards.
“Our CBP officers continue the fight against these crooks who are using this pandemic to make a profit by selling these fraudulent documents,” LaFonda Sutton-Burke, the director for Field Operations in Chicago’s CBP Field Office, said in a statement. “I’m very proud that our officers are able to intercept these dangerous shipments and keep our communities safe.”
The news of the continued efforts to get fake vaccine cards comes weeks after President Joe Biden announced a vaccine mandate for private sector businesses with more than 100 employees. Soon after he made the announcement, criminals and scammers jumped in the ring and began raising prices for fake vaccine cards on underground forums.
In recent days, prices on Telegram groups focused on imitation vaccine cards for the U.S. have shot up, according to data Israeli security firm Check Point shared exclusively with The Daily Beast.
The price of a counterfeit CDC vaccine card sold on Telegram now costs approximately $250, a 150 percent increase from the prices of fake cards just before Biden made his announcement, security researchers from Check Point told The Daily Beast.
The number of sellers working to peddle counterfeit vaccine cards on Telegram has also increased in recent days: Just weeks ago there were 10,000 sellers, but that number has increased to more than 15,000 as of Tuesday, according to Check Point, which was founded by veterans of an elite cyber unit of Israel’s military intelligence directorate.
The number of subscribers per Telegram group peddling fake cards on average jumped to 170,000, a spokesperson for Check Point told The Daily Beast. Just this August the number of subscribers per Telegram group hovered around 15,000, Check Point said.
“There’s clear velocity in the black market, and it looks like more people have taken interest in both the seller and the buyer side,” Check Point spokesperson Ekram Ahmed told The Daily Beast.
Cybercriminals have been working to take advantage of fears surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic since the earliest days of the virus’ spread, security researchers told The Daily Beast.
At first, scams focused on cashing in on getting unwitting or desperate buyers to purchase fake COVID-19 tests and unproven treatments. As the pandemic progressed and people were able to get legitimate vaccines, however, the market has expanded to include other swindles, according to an analysis from Flashpoint researchers that was shared with The Daily Beast.
“Once the real vaccines were widely available, these particular scams tailed off and much of the illicit activity morphed into fake tests, fake vaccine cards, and some fake homemade remedies,” a spokesperson for Flashpoint told The Daily Beast.
Scammers have also been profiting off of fake negative test results and scams relating to government relief programs implemented during the pandemic, according to Flashpoint.
Scammers taking advantage of fear in any circumstance can appear callous, but the scams peddling dubious COVID-19 treatments and fake vaccine cards as primarily unvaccinated people fill beds in overwhelmed hospitals can feel especially cruel.
“These shipments are concerning. These were seized in just one night and you have to wonder if this trend will continue,” CBP’s Chicago Area Port Director, Shane Campbell, said in a statement.