A ban on unvaccinated Australians entering bars and restaurants nudged thousands to get jabbed – but it has also seen the rise of a thriving black market in fake Covid-19 vaccine certificates online.
Twenty-four-year-old Molly – who asked to conceal her real name – is hitting the town.
When Melbourne last month clambered out of 260-plus days of sporadic lockdowns, the allure of the city’s vibrant social scene was too much to resist, even though she is unvaccinated.
“I’m not anti” vaccine, she told AFP, “but I don’t agree with it being so mandatory.”
In the last few weeks, she has used a fake vaccine passport acquired through social media to dine at multiple restaurants across the city.
“There was a link going around a few months ago: you put in your details, and it gives you a vaccine passport,” she explained.
The link has since been removed, but Australian authorities are playing whack-a-mole with a host of similar sites and apps that are keen to cash in.
Across the country, Google searches for fake certificates soared when rules for the non-vaccinated were announced in early October, surging again when they entered into force.
One still-active website purports to sell certificates from Australia, the US, Britain, Ireland and Pakistan for around US$500 apiece.
Health experts worry that fake certificates put owners at risk, could fuel outbreaks and complicate contact tracing.
The number of fakes in circulation is difficult to estimate, but one Telegram channel touting fraudulent Australian certificates has more than 64,000 members alone.
“You can get them pretty easily on the dark web,” said Vince Hurley, a veteran detective who now teaches criminology at Macquarie University.
“The price ranges from AUS$100 (US$74) to AUS$1,000 depending on the quality, on the reputation of the person selling and comments from other individuals.”
Despite the risk of up to 10 years in jail and fines topping US$7,400, some Australians have bought the fake certificates, or created their own homemade workarounds.
Salim, 27 – who also asked for his real name not to be used – created his own vaccine passport by using a friend’s real one as a template.
He has successfully used it in restaurants, gyms and salons, and is not deterred by any legal risks.
“I’m forced to do this because I wasn’t given a choice. I’m not robbing a bank, I’m not hurting anyone,” he told AFP.
“I know at least 10 people who have fake vaccination papers,” he added.
You’re not coming in
The Australian Federal Police is aware of the problem and has vowed to “maintain the integrity of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout in Australia,” according to a spokesman.
To address the issue authorities have begun to reboot the first vaccine passports with flickering digital holograms, QR codes and other anti-counterfeit measures.
But according to Hurley, there is a “law of diminishing returns” policing the black market, with forces needing to engage in the highly “labour intensive” job of “having dedicated police sitting at a desk, monitoring online”.
Day-to-day policing of certificates is left to venues, which are required by law to check the status of everyone they admit.
Anthony Hammond, the owner of two pubs in Melbourne, says his industry has been left in the lurch when it comes to policing themselves.
The pub owner’s venues have been “flat out” since reopening to revellers, and staff have been examining a dizzying array of certificates on apps, smartphone wallets and in hard copy.
“We don’t know anything about them. I wouldn’t even know what they would look like, we’ve had no education by the government or whoever,” he said.
“You’re going to have some people doing the wrong thing. How can we prevent that?”