How the market for fake certificates and vaccinations works in Ukraine. From Zaborona.
This fall, the Ukrainian government extended quarantine curbs again. Not long afterwards, it announced new social restrictions. No longer applicable to all Ukrainians, these restrictions mostly affect the unvaccinated and those who do not have a recent negative PCR test. Yet not everyone in Ukraine has been willing to come to terms with this reality. Many are categorically opposed to vaccination, particularly due to distrust of medicine and the spread of fake news and manipulation on social media. All of this has led to the flourishing of a new money-spinner in Ukraine: the sale of counterfeit COVID vaccination certificates and negative PCR tests.
People are prepared to pay for a vaccination certificate without being vaccinated. If they later decide to get vaccinated, they simply cannot do it, because they are likely to have already been entered into the database as vaccinated. The only way out of the situation is to go to the police and confess to the crime.
At the end of September, law enforcement uncovered a similar scheme in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. A health worker and her acquaintance were issuing international COVID certificates to order. People were paying around 6,000 hryvnyas [$224] for their pseudo-vaccination. She advertised her services in chat and messenger groups, offering an international certificate with entry into the electronic medical database. Clients could also purchase a COVID certificate without database entry for 1,500 hryvnyas.
How It Works
The situation with fake negative COVID test results is equally absurd. It is not just individual small-time scammers that are involved in this business, but also entire tourist agencies. At the end of September, the Ukrainian national police reported they had uncovered a tourist firm in Zaporizhzhia Oblast which was issuing certificates of negative test results for trips abroad. Since the beginning of the year, the scammers had falsified over a hundred certificates. One certificate cost 500 hryvnyas. They printed the forged certificates on forms with the faked stamp of the Zaporizhzhia Ministry of Health and the signature of the laboratory’s head.
Zaborona began its investigation into this business by looking for advertisements. The favorite platforms of scammers like this are social networks, where it is easiest to preserve anonymity and reduce the risk of being caught.
We found an Instagram page called freetraveling2021 promising, “I do PCR tests and vaccination certificates.”
Writing to the site under the name Oleksandr Romaniuk, we said, “I’m writing from a new account for security reasons. I urgently need a PCR test result because I need to fly.”
After that first contact, they then asked us to move over to Telegram and continue the discussion there. Twenty minutes after we provided details of “Oleksandr’s” made-up details, we received two negative test results, as promised.
Both certificates were [purportedly] issued by real laboratories in Kyiv. Posing as tourist agencies, we called the labs to request confirmation of the authenticity of the certificates. Both labs told us that the certificates were not genuine, an indication that such forgeries can only pass a superficial check. If an inspector manages to scan the QR code, it will be very easy to detect that the document is a fraud.
After receiving the certificates, we did not pay the scammers the requested fee of 400 hryvnyas for their services, which greatly displeased them. We blocked the scammers’ accounts on Instagram and Telegram. However, they managed to find our Telegram account through another page and, on the evening of the day we ordered the forged certificates, we started receiving threats from a man who signed himself Vlad:
They’re already waiting for you at the airport, good luck
I sent the information
there are ways to check
I have connections at the airport.
They’ll fuck you up and leave you a husk
Interestingly, Vlad did not know what airport we were supposed to be flying out of, so it was not clear who he could have sent our information to.
Another popular method of forging a vaccination certificate is to go through the HELSI.me electronic system. The scheme works like this: you set up an appointment with a doctor, who enters the details of your vaccination, the vaccine number and batch into the system, but the actual vaccine is literally poured down the drain.
On 5 November, the Interior Ministry reported that a doctor in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast had for the first time been convicted for faking COVID certificates. The doctor was fined 34,000 hryvnyas and stripped of his license to practice his specialization for a year. This was a precedent, as it is not easy to uncover such a scheme, because everything happens in the doctor’s own office, and no one can check whether a patient actually received a vaccine.
The medical director of HELSI.me, Evgeny Donets, told Zaborona he did not like the term “forged COVID certificate” in this context, because it was not the certificate but the very fact of vaccination that was being falsified. The system cannot determine whether the vaccine was present in a patient.
In the HELSI system, vaccination is confirmed by an electronic digital signature. According to Donets, this signature has legal standing. It is not technically possible for a person who does not work in a medical institution, and is not registered on the system as a doctor, to enter a fake vaccination into the system.
Doctors bear legal, as well as moral, responsibility for their actions. If someone found out that a vaccination had not taken place, it would not be hard to check who entered the false information.
It does happen that doctors simply make a mistake in inputting data. This can happen primarily due to the heavy workload borne by medical staff, and also because not all of them have figured out how the system works.
However, it is not easy to determine if a doctor has intentionally issued a false vaccination certificate. According to Donets, law enforcement representatives periodically contact HELSI to explain the technical side of the process. It would not be possible to detect a violation using only HELSI, he added. Usually, an investigation starts from ads on social networks, where doctors themselves or middlemen advertise illegal services. Law enforcement officers then make a “test purchase,” as we did, and then follow the chain to a doctor who enters false information into HELSI.
New Bill Proposes Harsher Penalties
Since the beginning of 2021, police have opened over 350 criminal cases for falsifying PCR test results and COVID certificates. Interestingly, under Ukrainian law, not only the individual who forged the document, but also anyone who makes use of it, can be charged with a crime. Theoretically, then, if you are caught with a counterfeit certificate, you too could be called to account.
Recently, the Health Ministry introduced a bill to increase liability for counterfeiting and use of falsified certificates, vaccination certificates, and negative COVID test results. If parliament passes the fill, violators will face a 34,000 hryvnya fine for use of counterfeit documents, detention for six months, or restrictions on their freedom of movement for two years.
Anyone who sells these fake documents would be subject to a fine of up to 170,000 hryvnyas or three years’ imprisonment. Doctors who enter false information into medical systems could be fined up to 68,000 hryvnyas or face two years’ imprisonment, and be forbidden to practice medicine for up to three years.
Polina Vernyhor reported this story for the Ukrainian news site Zaborona. Transitions has edited the text for length and style. Produced with the support of the Russian Language News Exchange.