Aussies skirt entry rules with fake vaccine certificates

Health experts worry that fake certificates put owners at risk, could fuel outbreaks and complicate contact tracing. PHOTO: SERVICES AUSTRALIA

MELBOURNE (AFP) - 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 declined to use 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), but I don't agree with it being so mandatory," she told AFP.

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 said.

The link has since been removed, but the 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 United States, Britain, Ireland and Pakistan for around US$500 (S$675) 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 Mr Vince Hurley, a veteran detective who now teaches criminology at Macquarie University.

"The price ranges from A$100 (S$100) to A$1,000 depending on the quality, and 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.

Mr 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.

The Australian Federal Police is aware of the problem and has vowed to "maintain the integrity of the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out in Australia", according to a spokesman.

To address the issue, the authorities have begun to reboot the first vaccine passports with flickering digital holograms, QR codes and other anti-counterfeit measures.

But according to Mr 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".

Some Australians have bought the fake certificates, or created their own homemade workarounds. PHOTO: AFP

Day-to-day policing of certificates is left to venues, which are required by law to check the status of everyone they admit.

Mr 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 his staff has 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?"

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