(NewsNation) — COVID vaccinations are available to Americans for free, but fraudulent black market vaccine cards could cost their owners and distributors a lot of money, as well as time behind bars. The laws surrounding fake IDs such as driver’s licenses vary by state and circumstance, but possessing or creating a fraudulent vaccination card—which uses official U.S. agency seals—could be considered a federal crime punishable by fines or prison.
As people nationwide are asked to show proof of vaccination for admission to businesses and events, prosecutors are navigating new territory and, in some cases, charging federal crimes in connection with vaccine card fraud. That includes producing fake COVID vaccination record cards and lying to federal investigators, which could result in prison time.
Fraudulently using the seal of any U.S. department or agency also is a crime, punishable by a fine or as many as five years in prison. On the other hand, selling legitimate vaccine cards to the unvaccinated could also result in a 10-year prison sentence, while lying to an investigating officer carries a potential five-year penalty.
“Obviously, it is wrong and almost always a crime to make fake government documents, and obviously, when we see that happening, we’re going to do our best to prosecute that when appropriate,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Derek Shoemake, who also serves as the District of South Carolina’s coronavirus fraud coordinator.
Earlier this month, a federal grand jury in Columbia, South Carolina indicted a 53-year-old woman in connection with the production of phony vaccination records. The woman, Tammy McDonald, faces as many as 15 years in prison for each count of producing a fraudulent card and five years in prison for lying to federal investigators.
McDonald’s case was the first such prosecution in Shoemake’s district, although others have previously been charged elsewhere. A New Jersey woman calling herself the AntiVaxMomma on Instagram was charged in August and accused of selling several hundred fake COVID vaccination cards at $200 a pop. A Florida couple also was arrested in August in connection with allegations that they had fake vaccination cards after flying from Miami to Hawaii with their children.
“It’s a dangerous game to play,” Shoemake said. “The risk isn’t worth the reward.”
More than 204 million people throughout the U.S. are fully vaccinated and 60.8 million have received a booster dose, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But vaccine hesitancy has some refusing to receive immunization even as more opportunities are made available exclusively to the vaccinated population.
Groups including the United States Federal Trade Commission and the FBI have warned against selling or purchasing fraudulent vaccine cards, noting that it’s not only a crime but endangers public safety. They also recommend not sharing personal information with strangers, who could sell your data or use it to commit identity theft.
The use of fake vaccine cards can be reported to the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services at (800) HHS-TIPS or oig.hhs.gov, by filing a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, or by notifying the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.