Following this year’s Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Uman, Ukraine, Israeli police said that over 200 travelers returned to the country with forged negative COVID tests. This emerging industry of bogus coronavirus documentation and its offerings – fake tests, vaccine certificates, proof of recovery and more – are the subject of a study by Check Point Software Technologies.
According to Check Point, most of this activity takes place on the encrypted Telegram messaging platform. One Telegram group, called “Coronavirus certificates vaccinations/coronavirus tests,” which has been active since June, has in recent weeks started to offer forged negative COVID tests to travelers returning to Israel from Ukraine.
The cost of a negative test document for those returning from Uman was 100 shekels ($31), with a minimum order of 200 shekels – i.e. two tests per person – which bear the name of the customer. The cost of a recovery or vaccination certificate is 300 shekels, and the forger claims to supply a valid QR code, which appear on each legitimate certificate.
The forgers are quite sophisticated; they can also provide a counterfeit Ukrainian coronavirus test, a rapid test for flights (with whatever timestamp the client requests), and even fake test results from the Israeli military.
Telegram’s COVID document forgery industry got its start when the Health Ministry began issuing vaccination certificates, known as Green Passes, earlier this year.
In a given year, tens of thousands of Jews – many of them followers of the Bratslav Hasidic sect founded by Rabbi Nachman in the late 18th century – gather for the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman’s grave. This year, the traditional pilgrimage took place under guidelines issued by the government, despite the recent increase in new infections and against the wishes of the coronavirus czar, Prof. Salman Zarka.
Indeed, this year’s trips to Uman were a both huge source of “imported” infections – some 1,400 cases, according to some reports – and a huge source of business for the forgery industry. The number of forgeries is estimated to be in the hundreds, with some 200 Israelis who returned from Uman caught with forged certificates, as a result of which they were summoned for police questioning. The travelers who are believed to have used fake tests are suspected of fraud, forgery and spreading an infectious disease, which is considered a criminal offense in Israel in certain circumstances.
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Oded Vanunu, the head of products vulnerability research at Check Point, said, “We’ve been following the forging of coronavirus tests and vaccinations since November 2020, and are watching how this field has developed. What began as groups of hackers on the darknet has become an open market on messaging apps, among them Telegram, in groups that sometimes have hundreds of thousands of participants. We recently uncovered the sales connected to Ukraine due to Rosh Hashanah in Uman, and you can see how easy it is to forge a COVID test, and thus enter Israel, even if you have COVID.”
Telegram’s forgery industry began when the Health Ministry started to issue vaccination certificates, known as Green Passes, earlier this year. Check Point reached out to the ministry in February to alert it to a flaw the company discovered in the Green Pass, which makes it particularly easy to forge. Green Passes allow the holder to access entertainment, facilities and workplaces barred to people who have not been vaccinated against or recovered from COVID.
Experts said the forgery is so simple to do that anyone with access to Photoshop or Acrobat, or any image or visual document editing program, can create a seemingly valid document indicating they have received the vaccine and are immune to the virus.