‘They will become more desperate’: Vaccination fraudsters shut down

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Authorities are working to stymie a rise in fraudulent COVID-19 documents such as fake digital vaccination certificates as Victoria prepares to emerge from lockdown next week.

One website, which was taken down after queries were made by The Age, generated fake digital coronavirus vaccination certificates for free within minutes.

The site allowed users to input their personal details and false dates for their first and second vaccinations. It then generated a bogus certificate on the spot.

The legitimate vaccine passport system. Credit:Rob Gunstone

It included tips about the standard length of time between the different vaccinations and has instructions for saving the certificate to make it look like the Medicare app on a phone.

After inquiries from The Age to the Australian Federal Police and Services Australia, the website was removed.

Cyber security professor Matt Warren, the director of RMIT’s Centre for Cyber Security Research and Innovation, said online conversations among anti-vaccination groups showed there were many people creating fake documents – including certificates and check-in proof – as Victoria’s reopening date drew closer. On current forecasts, the state is expected to remove a number of restrictions late next week.

“The problem they have is now the government’s check-in system [in Victoria] is actually created. They are not going to be able to input [the fake vaccination certificate] into the check-in app,” he said.

However, he said the fake digital certificates might still be effective for gaining entry to some venues where the integrated app was not in use.

Those creating the fake documents were banking on situations where the differences between real and fraudulent certificates wouldn’t be noticed, he said.

How to check if a vaccine certificate is real in Victoria

View the certificate as part of the Service Victoria app check-in process, rather than just the vaccine certificate by itself.

When someone checks in with the Service Victoria app, a flickering State Victoria symbol will appear in the background. In the Service Victoria app, the moving Australian coat of arms should appear in the background. The fake certificates have a flickering line.

The valid certificate in the Service Victoria app only contains name, date of birth and ‘valid from’. Fake certificates can also include document number, healthcare identifier, vaccination types, last updated and disclaimer.

Source: Professor Matt Warren, Director of the RMIT University Centre for Cyber Security Research & Innovation

“This is what the anti-vaxxers are hoping for in a busy situation. The problem is the business has a duty of care to make sure only vaccinated people are allowed into organisations, so it is going to be a real challenge for organisations,” he said.

“These groups of individuals [against vaccination] will become more desperate as things open up, and they become excluded, and they will take more desperate acts, we have already seen reports … about trying to bribe doctors and other medical professionals to fake they had vaccination. I think we are going to see more desperation from these groups when they realise society is moving and they are left behind.”

While individuals in Victoria can be fined up to $10,000 for using false or misleading information about their vaccination status or face fraud charges, businesses and venues will not be penalised for serving an unvaccinated person who uses fake documents.

Doctors and health professionals in Melbourne revealed earlier this week some unvaccinated people had offered them bribes of up to $1500 to falsely say they had administered them a vaccine. Others have reportedly purchased fake vaccination cards online or turned up at clinics to claim the service did not record their vaccines properly with Medicare.

On Wednesday, Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton expressed concern at the fake certificates, but said a survey showed only four per cent of Victorians were planning not to get the vaccine.

“We know that there are some highly motivated individuals who are trying to get around the system; they are a very small minority,” he said.

“Those very small percentages of people won’t change the landscape substantially, but they’ve found some very creative ways to try. I think, equally, our department, working with Service Victoria, are being very clever about how those certificates are going to be validated and not able to be counterfeited.”

Victoria’s Health Minister Martin Foley criticised those seeking the fake documents.

“Why do it? Why fool yourself that you think, handing over money to some crook is going to let you into a venue. The easiest way is to go and get vaccinated, to protect yourself, protect that venue” he said.

“It is just beyond comprehension. Don’t waste your money, avoid the crooks, go and get vaccinated.”

Professor Warren said creating the fake documents amounted to fraud, noting it was also an offence to copy government records.

”Penalties would be different in each state. But it’s also a Commonwealth issue. What they are trying to do is defraud, make a false Commonwealth certificate, and then use that information in a state context. There’s two sets of laws people could potentially be foul of.”

A spokesperson for the Australian Federal Police did not say if the site offering fake vaccine certificates was under investigation, but said the penalty for forging a Commonwealth document was up to 10 years in jail.

“The new powers … will enable us to more effectively identify and disrupt serious criminals who use the dark web and anonymising technology to facilitate and disguise their criminal activities, including the forgery of COVID-19 documents,” the spokesperson said.

Services Australia general manager Hank Jongen said they were aware of a small number of scams relating to vaccination certificates.

“We don’t comment on security or suspected criminal matters but Services Australia works closely with relevant authorities and agencies to investigate and resolve them,” he said.

“We are evolving proof of vaccination certificates, including strengthening security measures, with guidance from the Australian Cyber Security Centre.”

A “vaccinated economy trial” began on Monday in 14 businesses in six regional areas, with more than 200,000 Victorians linking their Medicare vaccine certificate to the Service Victoria app, creating a “passport” to prove their vaccination status.

However, in NSW, the state government is still working to integrate the digital certificate onto a Service NSW app. In the meantime, patrons there need to show their vaccination certificate, either through the Medicare app, digital wallet on their phone or a paper certificate.

Hospitality and retail businesses will not be fined for granting entry to unvaccinated people in NSW, while police will only step in to assist with enforcement when asked.

Anyone who suspects that someone may be creating fake COVID-19 digital certificates or Medicare immunisation history statements should report it online at www.servicesaustralia.gov.au/fraud or by calling 131 524.

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