Instagram User @AntiVaxMomma Charged With Selling Fake Vaccine Cards

Originally published in New York Times

A New Jersey woman who used the Instagram handle @AntiVaxMomma was charged in a conspiracy to sell hundreds of fake coronavirus vaccination cards over the social media platform, Manhattan prosecutors said on Tuesday.

The allegations against the woman, Jasmine Clifford, 31, were unveiled in Manhattan criminal court. Prosecutors said that Ms. Clifford sold about 250 forged cards over Instagram.

She also worked with another woman, Nadayza Barkley, 27, who is employed at a medical clinic in Patchogue, N.Y., to fraudulently enter at least 10 people into New York’s immunization database, prosecutors said.

There was a warrant out for Ms. Clifford’s arrest, but she did not appear in the courtroom on Tuesday. She is expected to be charged with two felonies related to the scheme, in addition to the conspiracy charge, which is a misdemeanor.

Ms. Barkley, who did appear in court, was charged with a felony, as were 13 people who purchased the cards, some of whom worked in hospitals and nursing homes. A lawyer for Ms. Clifford could not immediately be reached for comment. Theodore Goldbergh, a lawyer who represented Ms. Barkley at the appearance, said that she had been released on her own recognizance but declined to comment further.

Beginning in May, prosecutors said, Ms. Clifford, who described herself online as an entrepreneur and the operator of multiple businesses, began advertising forged vaccination cards through her Instagram account.

She charged $200 for the falsified cards, prosecutors said. For $250 more, Ms. Barkley would enter a customer’s name into New York’s official immunization database, enabling him or her to obtain the state’s Excelsior Pass, a digital certificate of vaccination.

Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, released a statement that called on Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, to crack down on fraud.

“We will continue to safeguard public health in New York with proactive investigations like these, but the stakes are too high to tackle fake vaccination cards with whack-a-mole prosecutions,” Mr. Vance said. “Making, selling, and purchasing forged vaccination cards are serious crimes with serious public safety consequences.”

A spokesman for Facebook said the platform prohibited anyone from buying or selling vaccine cards, that it had removed Ms. Clifford’s account at the beginning of August, and that it would review any other accounts that might be doing the same thing, removing any it turned up.

A popular TikTok user, @Tizzyent, highlighted Ms. Clifford’s scheme in a viral video this month. A spokeswoman for the Manhattan district attorney’s office said that the video had not led to the charges against Ms. Clifford and the others, and court documents indicated that Ms. Clifford had been under investigation since June.

The charges against Ms. Clifford and her collaborators underscore a black-market industry for counterfeit vaccination cards that has come roaring into existence this year.

With only about 52 percent of the country fully vaccinated and a significant minority of Americans skeptical of the vaccines, forged cards are offered up on messaging services like Telegram and WhatsApp, as well as social media platforms like Instagram. Counterfeits have been spotted for sale on Amazon and Etsy.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said this month that its officers in Memphis had seized more than 3,000 forged cards in 2021 so far. Earlier this year, the National Association of Attorneys General sent a letter to the heads of Twitter, Shopify and eBay asking that they take immediate action to halt the sale of the fake cards on their websites.

Concerns about forged cards have risen as states, cities and corporations have shown more willingness to mandate vaccinations for certain activities and groups.

Earlier this month, New York City announced that it would begin to require that workers and customers at indoor restaurant dining rooms, gyms and performances have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine.

Last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that the city’s more than 300,000 employees would have to get vaccinated or undergo weekly testing, prompting some pushback from unions, which are now in negotiations with the mayor’s office over the details of implementation.

Law enforcement officials have done what they can to crack down on fraud. Earlier this month, a Chicago-based pharmacist was arrested by federal agents and charged with the sale of 125 vaccination cards to 11 different buyers on eBay. The previous month, a naturopathic doctor in California was charged with a scheme to falsely record her customers as having received the Moderna vaccine.

New York’s Legislature recently passed a bill that would make it a state crime to falsify vaccination records. In an interview, State Senator Todd Kaminsky, one of the bill’s sponsors, said that counterfeit vaccine cards represented a growing threat.

“It was good foresight on our part to recognize that there were going to be those who would forge vaccine cards and create a public health danger,” he said.

@Tizzyent, the TikTok user who made a video about Ms. Clifford’s scheme this month, is an independent filmmaker in Florida who asked that he only be identified by his first name, Michael, because he had received threats for his videos in the past. He said in an interview that he had been fighting misinformation on social platforms for more than a year.

“It’s something that’s just a pet peeve,” he said.

He said that he had been alerted to a number of people selling counterfeit vaccine cards on social media, but that the @AntiVaxMomma scheme, for which she appeared to be recruiting collaborators when he stumbled upon one of her posts, seemed particularly advanced.

“A couple of days ago, a good friend of mine passed away from Covid,” he said. “When I see someone offering a workaround like this that’s putting everyone at risk, it’s horrifying to me.”