‘There’s a lot of money in this business’ New investigation offers inside look at Russia’s black market for fake vaccination certificates
Russia’s widespread vaccine hesitancy has given birth to a thriving black market for counterfeit documents proving “immunity” to COVID-19. Since the start of 2021, the Russian authorities have opened dozens of criminal cases over the falsification of vaccination certificates, medical disqualification certificates, PCR test results, and even QR-codes. The cybersecurity firm Group-IB even declared the sale of fake vaccination certificates “the most widespread form of online fraud” in Russia during the pandemic. On July 27, MBK Media published an investigation into how the black market for forged medical certificates works, revealing that the organizers behind these schemes are allegedly making millions of rubles (sometimes in a matter of days). Meduza summarizes the investigation’s main findings here.
Please note. Vaccination is of critical importance. It appears to be the only way to stop the pandemic and return to normal life. We recommend that you get vaccinated against COVID-19 and under no circumstances contact vendors offering fake vaccination certificates.
Counterfeit vaccination certificates have been available for purchase ever since Russia began its vaccination campaign against COVID-19. Indeed, ads started popping up en masse not only on the darknet, but also on Telegram channels and social networks. What’s more, according to a new investigation from MBK Media, Russians are also managing to obtain falsified certificates directly from doctors.
Options for ‘anti-vaxxers’
IT worker Sergey is a dyed-in-the-wool “anti-vaxxer” — he believes that an injection could turn him into a “GMO man.” So when his employer demanded he provide proof of vaccination against the coronavirus, he turned to an acquaintance working at a state clinic in southern Moscow for help. By that time, Sergey claims, many of his acquaintances had already obtained fake vaccination certificates.
Sergey went to the hospital, where he was “formally” vaccinated. Here’s how he described the procedure:
“There’s two options. The first one is a nurse takes the syringe, breaks open the vial, assembles the vaccine, and then, imperceptibly, when she releases the air from the syringe, drains the vaccine. The second option is when the nurse sets the needle at an angle and the vaccine doesn’t go into the muscle, but flows down the arm.”
After the “procedure,” MBK Media’s source says, the doctor wrote down the vial number and the date of vaccination on a certificate. According to Sergey, medical workers charge 7,000 rubles ($95) for this service. There are also middlemen who, for just 2,000 to 3,000 rubles ($27-$40), shuttle anti-vaxxers to hospitals where they can get a fake vaccine.
‘The certificate looks real’
Anonymous vendors also offer vaccination certificates, vaccination records on the government portal Gosuslugi, as well as the QR -odes that were required for indoor dining in Moscow in June and July. Alternatively, you can buy a full package of documents. These dealers don’t offer any guarantees, and they ask for payment up front.
Having analyzed this market on the RuNet, the cybersecurity firm Group-IB gives the following prices. A certificate with a corresponding entry in the government’s vaccination registry costs between 3,000 (about $41) and 30,000 rubles ($407) — on its own, a vaccination certificate costs between 1,000 (less than $14) and 4,900 rubles ($66). Dealers charge between 1,100 ($15) and 4,999 rubles ($68) to enter vaccination data into the Gosuslugi portal without the purchase of an accompanying certificate. A negative PCR test goes for anywhere from 500 ($7) to 4,000 rubles ($54), prices for Moscow QR codes range from 999 ($13.55) to 3,000 rubles ($41), and proof of medical disqualification from vaccination costs between 800 ($11) and 3,000 rubles ($41). You can also buy falsified vaccination certificates on Telegram, where prices range anywhere from 5,000–6,500 rubles ($68–$88) to 20,000 rubles ($271), MBK Media writes.
These illegal vendors ask their clients for the following personal information: their full name, date of birth, registered address, individual insurance account number (SNILS), Obligatory Medical Insurance (OMI) policy number, a phone number, and a date of fake vaccination (this is left up to the client). Group-IB says that some clients also share their Gosuslugi login information with these dealers. As the cybersecurity company underscores, the sellers could very well turn around and use their clients’ personal data in other fraudulent schemes — for example, for obtaining loans.
An employee who works for one popular Telegram channel offering counterfeit certificate services told MBK Media that they can draw up a false document in 24 to 48 hours. Another — less popular — channel said that the work on a certificate would take from four to six hours, or up to a couple of days. Group-IB notes that producing a certificate with a corresponding entry in the vaccination registry can take up to three weeks, whereas producing a certificate on its own takes one day on average. Vendors promise to deliver the documents by courier, either directly to your home or to a conveniently located subway station. They can also be sent by registered mail.
Maxim, who works in food services, told MBK Media that he purchased a fake vaccination document in March 2021 — at the time, employees at his workplace were required to get vaccinated against COVID-19, under threat of losing their jobs. With the help of his friends, Maxim found a certificate vendor online, paid them 1,800 rubles (about $24, the prices were lower back then), and sent them his personal information via email.
About a week later, he picked up his new certificate at a subway station. “On the whole the certificate looks like a real one,” Maxim told MBK Media. Though he wasn’t able to use the counterfeit certificate to obtain a QR-code from Gosuslugi, Maxim says that at work, no one doubted its authenticity.
A motley crew
The most popular Telegram channel selling counterfeit vaccination certificates, QR-codes, and PCR test results boasts 200,000 subscribers. The people behind it assure that they work throughout Russia and that the data from the certificates is entered into all databases, including the Gosuslugi portal.
MBK Media’s journalist spoke to this channel’s manager, who introduced himself as Roberts. He said that he’s not worried about potential issues with Russian law enforcement, because he lives in the capital city of one of the Baltic states (he didn’t specify which one).
Roberts explained that this Telegram channel used to produce counterfeit certificates from addictions specialists (narcologists), but they switched to vaccination certificates in early 2021. “We decided to start this business six months ago, because there was an opportunity and there was great demand for these services. Plus, there’s a lot of money in this business,” he said.
In total, the project involves dozens of people: in addition to the organizers themselves, there’s also medical workers, mainly from Moscow and St. Petersburg. In conversation with MBK Media, Roberts explained that most of the organizers are young people, between ages of 16 and 22 years old. Some of them are small-time drug dealers. Roberts also said that he used to sell drugs online himself. “Many [of us] were involved with drugs. In general, it’s a motley crew for all tastes. There were no outright newcomers. Everyone knew what to do and how to do it,” he added.
Roberts is personally responsible for communicating with clients who wish to purchase a certificate, while another colleague of his takes care of finding medical workers — “through the grapevine” — who are willing to falsify documents. Roberts didn’t specify what the other participants do, but he did talk about their earnings:
“On average we have 100 clients per day, give or take. This is a lot of money, as you can imagine. Sometimes we earned 3 million rubles [almost $40,700] in a day. During the ‘Sobyanin month’ [when QR-codes were required for indoor dining in Moscow] there was a boom — we made 14.6 million rubles [nearly $198,000] in 22 days.”
Roberts noted that the project’s best employees earn more than 500,000 rubles (about $6,780) a month. According to him, this is how much a doctor nicknamed “Maloy” and an operator known as “Lil” earned after working almost non-stop in July.
Medical workers in Moscow who cooperate with this Telegram channel receive 1,200 rubles (about $16) per certificate on average, while those in the regions get 600–800 rubles (approximately $8–$11) per document. Doctors are paid “pennies” for medical disqualification certificates and falsified tests, MBK Media’s source said.
That said, medical workers are the ones doing most of the work — for example, they have to upload the data on vaccinations to the Gosuslugi portal. Roberts also told MBK Media that in their six months of work, “only two of our doctors have been detained, but they couldn’t prove that they’re guilty.”
More often than not, it’s the couriers who deliver fake certificates to customers who get detained. According to Roberts, the organizers use couriers from official companies, who know nothing about the certificates, as well as their own couriers, who are paid 800 rubles (about $11) per order.
On July 23, the Main Directorate of the Interior Ministry’s Moscow branch reported that police have seized more than 700 counterfeit vaccination certificates since the start of 2021. During that same period, they’ve also opened more than 60 criminal cases on charges of forgery and fraud.
Translation by Eilish Hart