The 3 inch by 4 inch COVID cards are an easy mark, a fairly unsophisticated medical document typically verified with handwritten information. There are no state-of-the-art security seals, but there is now a Chicago area crackdown to protect public health and preserve the integrity of the vaccination system.
The story behind bootlegged cards is evolving across the country as seizures of fraudulent, poor quality fakes have been increasing for months. With an uncertain federal deadline for large U.S. businesses to start enforcing mandates, the demand from the vaccine hesitant is expected to skyrocket.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers working at O'Hare International Airport intercepted three different shipments of bogus cards since August. They're also continuing to see other pandemic-related items from home tests to touted but unapproved COVID-19 medications like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.
LaFonda Sutton-Burke, the newly installed Director of Field Operations for CBP Chicago, said there is little attempt to disguise the fake cards, unlike the creative packaging they've seen for other articles like fake purses, toy guns and illegal drugs.
In 2020, 30 million parcels came through the Chicago Postal International Sorting Center, and 10 million were inspected by CBP personnel. She said with the help of technology, their highly trained officers are making significant catches.
"There's a consumer demand because of the requirement that you have to show a CDC card to get into almost any venue," Sutton-Burke explained.
The combined shipments seized by Chicago CBP contained 120 counterfeit COVID-19 vaccination cars in six international delivery parcels destined for Illinois, Texas and Ohio.
"They are coming in from China with the destination to those three states," she said.
And she thinks that's not an accident.
"They actually know how to target locales in which there is demand," Sutton-Burke explained.
Cybersecurity firms report the number of sellers hocking fake cards has increased on the dark web and social media platforms.
The Chicago FBI warned that creating or buying a fake vaccination card may be a criminal offense, carrying penalties anywhere from five to 10 years in prison per charge.
"It's a federal violation, there's many statutes that apply. It applies to the purchase, sale, transport or creation of fake cards," said Deputy Special Agent in Charge Douglas Goodwater. "It also applies to completing the card with false information."
Federal law prohibits the unauthorized use of an official government agency's seal, specifically the HHS and CDC insignia that appears on legitimate cards.
Chloe Mrozak, 25, of Oak Lawn was arrested by Hawaiian authorities in August and charged with using a fake vaccine card to meet the tropic's COVID requirements for tourists. Police said the evidence was spelled out on Mrozak's card: "Maderna" instead of "Moderna."
In court, Mrozak promised a judge she would make all of her court appearances if he released her. But according to authorities she broke that promise and she didn't show for her next Zoom court date. Now there is a warrant for her arrest.
The I-Team found her on the other end of her mother's phone while visiting her Oak Lawn home, but neither mom nor daughter offered an explanation for the missed court date. Mrozak now faces two misdemeanor counts for allegedly flouting Hawaii's emergency COVID-19 rules, and is also looking at a $500 bench warrant for her arrest after missing court.
Early in the case, Mrozak was represented by a Hawaiian public defender, but her mother now says she has a private attorney. She could not provide that attorney's name.
Illinois legislation uses similar approach as Texas abortion law to combat fake vaccine cards
New legislation in Illinois would allow for citizens to act as vaccination watchdogs and initiate civil action against people use whose fake COVID vaccine cards at concerts or sporting events where proof of vaccination is required. It's a similar approach to the controversial abortion law in Texas, soon set to go before the Supreme Court.
"I don't like the Texas law, but the idea there was to hold people accountable who assisted in abortions. That didn't make any sense to me because whether someone has an abortion doesn't impact community at large or public health at large, but this really did," said Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago). "So I use the same approach but unlike Texas, if someone fakes the vaccine cards, they jeopardize the public health of all those around him. So we would allow people to file a civil action against those people."
Williams, a six-term state rep, said her new legislation targets people who make or use those fake COVID cards with a possible $10,000 in damages. And while Williams is adamant that she dislikes the Texas abortion law, she does like citizens holding wrongdoers responsible for public health.
"I think we all need to hold the community at large accountable for not only encouraging vaccinations, but ensuring that people aren't lying to each other about their vaccination status. If I choose to go to an event, which requires a vaccination status, I'm going to feel more comfortable than I would not knowing if people are vaccinated. And the idea that someone would lie about that is really concerning," she said.
The Illinois House Vaccination Deception Act modeled after that recent Texas abortion law, is fresh to the General Assembly and just beginning to wind through the Springfield pipeline. Williams said she sees the problem as similar to teenagers and fake IDs used to get into bars. Both have public health implications she says, and need to be better controlled.