While the number of businesses and industries requiring people to show a COVID-19 vaccination card has decreased, proof of vaccination continues to be a part of daily life to work, travel abroad, and attend certain events. In an effort to get around these rules, some have attempted forging or using fake vaccination cards. Others are turning a quick profit by producing or selling fraudulent vaccine cards or scamming individuals into sending money for these cards.
Filling in bogus lot numbers, dates, and provider sites on a 3x4 inch card might not seem serious to some, but as it turns out, it could be a federal or state crime. Below, we'll identify possible federal and state criminal violations and penalties associated with fake and forged vaccination cards. The exact crime and penalties depend on the illegal act and jurisdiction involved. Many of these crimes require the prosecutor to prove wrongful or fraudulent intent.
A vaccination card carries the federal seal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Making, selling, and transferring counterfeit cards with the CDC seal are felonies under federal law and carry the possibility of up to five years in prison. This same penalty applies if a person buys, procures, or uses a counterfeit vaccination card knowing the card is a fake. (18 U.S.C. § 1017 (2022).)
A person who unlawfully uses a legitimate vaccination card can also face federal penalties. The federal government ordered and contracted for the production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccination cards, which prosecutors argue makes the card government property. Stealing or converting government property for one's own use is a federal crime. For example, a person who steals legitimate vaccination cards—say from a hospital—could be charged under this law. This law also prohibits someone in lawful possession of vaccination cards from fraudulently converting them for their own use. An example would be a pharmacist who forges information on legitimate cards and sells them. Penalties under this law depend on the value of the property involved. Misdemeanor penalties apply if the value is $1,000 or less. If the value exceeds this amount, a person could face a 10-year felony. (18 U.S.C. § 641 (2022).)
When criminal activities, such as those listed above, take place through the mail or electronically, a prosecutor may be able to charge the offense under federal mail and wire fraud laws. These catch-all federal crimes apply to schemes to defraud that are carried out through the use of interstate mail or delivery services or wire communications (Internet, phones, computers).
So a person who places or receives a fake vaccination card in the mail commits mail fraud. Sending or accepting an electronic Venmo or PayPal payment for a forged card could be charged as wire fraud. A person could also face wire fraud charges for texting or emailing someone to complete the fraudulent transfer.
Creating, selling, or using fake vaccination cards can also be penalized at the state and local levels. While the exact crime and penalty will depend on the jurisdiction, below are examples of possible criminal violations under states' laws.
State forgery laws cover a broad range of conduct, including possessing, using, producing, or selling a forged document for a fraudulent purpose. Possessing or using a fake vaccination card for purposes of identification—say to enter a music venue—could constitute forgery. The person making or selling forged vaccination cards for these fraudulent purposes also commits a crime.
Penalties will vary, but typically, the harshest penalties apply to persons who make or sell forged documents. Possession penalties tend to be lower but can still result in misdemeanor or, sometimes, felony penalties.
Several states have immunization databases for recording vaccinations. A person who intentionally provides or enters false information into a government database could be criminally prosecuted. This crime might fall under a state's forgery law (described above). Other states have separate crimes that prohibit intentionally offering false information for public or official recording. These laws are often used to prosecute people who record a false legal document, like a false bank lien, in a government database. But now, state prosecutors are using them to charge people who try to record false proof of vaccination. Again, penalties vary by state, but these crimes may carry felony penalties. (Check out N.Y. Penal Law § 175.35 (2022).)
As mentioned above, individuals who steal legitimate vaccine cards could be charged with theft or larceny. States often base theft and larceny penalties on the value of the stolen item. However, many states also apply harsher penalties for stealing certain items regardless of value, such as government documents or prescription pads. Depending on how the law is written, stealing vaccination cards may fall under these harsher penalties.
Two or more people who agree to commit a crime and take some action in furtherance of the crime can face conspiracy charges. This charge can apply even if the crime wasn't completed. Say a seller and potential buyer of a fake vaccination card are texting back and forth about where to meet to complete the sale. The cops learn of this meeting spot and shut down the sale before it happens. Both parties could be charged with conspiracy because they agreed to commit a crime and took action in furtherance of the crime—texting and meeting up in this case. The seller could also be charged with making or possessing the forged document.
Penalties for conspiracy vary. In some states, a person can receive the same penalty as the underlying crime. Other states might impose penalties based on the offense level of the underlying crime, such as imposing a felony penalty if the underlying crime was a felony.
People who use or attempt to pass off fake vaccination cards at businesses, venues, or borders could run afoul of state, county, or local executive or emergency orders. When the pandemic first started, governors and mayors began issuing a flurry of executive orders, such as stay-at-home and quarantine orders. In a similar vein, some government officials have ordered proof of vaccination requirements pertaining to travel and attendance at large indoor venues. Depending on how these orders are written, intentionally using a fake vaccination card to gain admission or entrance into a restricted venue or business could be a violation. Potential penalties could include civil fines or criminal penalties.
Two travelers made news headlines after being arrested for using falsified vaccination cards to enter Hawai'i in violation of the state's executive COVID-19 mandates. They allegedly used the fake cards to avoid taking a COVID-19 test and quarantining upon arrival.
If you face charges for any criminal offense, speak with a criminal defense attorney. On top of possible time behind bars and fines, having a criminal record for fraud or forgery, even for a misdemeanor, can make it difficult to obtain housing, a loan, or a job in the future.