Police vow to pursue traders in fake Covid certificates

Latvian Radio reported November 26 on continuing efforts to counter what appears to be a thriving black market in fake Covid-19 vaccination certificates in Latvia.

In a special report LR's Zane Mače revealed several concerning cases in which people have opted to pay considerable sums for a fake certificate rather than getting a free vaccination, in order to enjoy fewer restrictions in the so-called "green regime" compared to those who are unvaccinated and can only access essential "red regime" services. In some cases the results of this deception have been fatal.

So far a total of 39 criminal proceedings have been instituted for this illegal practise, involving at least ten employees of medical institutions.

One of the best-known cases so far concerns a teacher from Smiltene who, it is alleged, was given a fake Covid certificate by her son. She subsequently died aged 56 and another family member blew the whistle, according to the Latvian Radio report. 

Doctors say lying about vaccinations is both useless and stupid. Dace Zavadska, the chairwoman of the National Council for Immunization, says bluntly: "They are risking their lives. Well, I don't know, you have to be an absolute idiot to imagine that you can buy health for money.”

The doctor emphasized that while you cannot tell at a glance if someone has been vaccinated or not, tests are given when someone is admitted to hospital for Covid symptoms that make things much clearer.

"Whether it's a second dose of vaccine or a real encounter with the virus - the immune system immediately reacts differently. Based on this principle, we can tell whether, when a person is infected and previously vaccinated, what the rate of his immune response should be, the numbers, which antibodies rise, and when. From this we can tell if he is encountering the virus for the first time and consequently if he is lying to us when he says his immune system has already experienced the virus with the help of the vaccine,” explained Zavadska.

Hospitals now have a special protocol that states that if a Covid-19 patient is admitted to the hospital and he or she is vaccinated, he or she will be tested. The test will show if the virus is new to the body or if the immune system has already encountered it.

Zavadska says she herself suspected two patients of having fake certificates who had subsequently died. But there are far more, probably hundreds, of forged certificates, she believes.

Like Zavadskaya, Doctor Sergejs Nikišins, who works at the laboratory where Covid blood samples are sent for antibody testing, emphasized that a doctor needs to know everything about his patient in order to help: “The doctor treating him uses the technique he uses for the vaccinated person," he said.

Using the wrong treatment algorithm can endanger the patient's life. Therefore, doctors urge you to immediately admit to having a fake certificate if that is indeed the case.

"It's for the good of the person, because human health and life are paramount. And it will help the doctor save health and life," added Nikišins.

A month ago, when hospitals were no longer able to cope with the flow of Covid-19 patients, TV3's "Bez Tabu" consumer show tracked down a medic prepared to issue fake certificates for a fee.

During the conversation recorded by the show, the doctor revealed the details of the transaction and how the data would be entered. A certificate for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was offered, payment in cash only. "Then give me your data, I'll explain the rest to you," the doctor told the program.

The cost was 400 euros. "Yes, you are not the only one in this matter," the doctor added.

So far, only one criminal case for false vaccination has been filed and tried. And a former soldier of the National Armed Forces is also sitting on the bench for the accused. He alegedly toured several vaccination centers in Rīga this summer, offering a bribe for a fictitious vaccination certificate. The armed forces were among the first to commit to full vaccination as a condition of service. 

"Yes, he showed the numbers on the phone, made it clear how much he was willing to pay so that he would not have to be vaccinated. It should be noted that the accused man does not admit his guilt in committing a criminal offense,” said the representative of the prosecutor's office Aiga Eiduka.

So far, only a nurse who has given a traveler a negative Covid-19 test for money has pleaded guilty. She paid a fine of 1,500 euros.

Fraudsters prey on the gullible

Why a medical professional would risk their career and a patient's health to issue a fake certificate is one question. But with an awareness that there is a demand for fake Covid certificates, fraudsters have not been slow in entering the market.

Latvian Radio contacted an anonymous channel on the Telegram communications app that was offering certificates at various prices: 150 euros for a Covid recovery certificate, 300 euros for a full vaccination certificate.

Latvian Radio showed interest in buying the certificate and was told to make a payment via the 'Verse' rapid payment app, after which a certificate would be issued saying vaccination with the single-shot J&J vaccine had been performed. Obviously, Latvian Radio did not prceed with a payment.

Police said they were aware of the channel and said it was a scam. The QR code of the certificate cannot be forged.

"The only thing they can do is copy someone else's. Either that or you don't get anything at all, you just transfer the money. They are fraudsters,” said Vitalijs Polovinskijs, Head of Division 2 of the State Police Department for Combating Economic Crimes.

Doctors involved in false vaccination criminal proceedings face suspension and having their medical licenses revoked. Some have been arrested.

However, the investigation of fictitious certificates is not quick. So far just certificates have been revoked. Police co-operate with health services, conduct expert examinations and interrogate the persons involved.

"This process is not very fast, but we have to go through this procedure so that the certificate is not revoked for a person to whom it has been reasonably issued," said Pēteris Bauska, Head of the Economic Crime Control Department.

His colleague Vitalijs Polovinskis added: “I would like to note that this set of measures is quite expensive. All the expertise, all the procedural steps, it is quite a burden on the state budget."

According to the police, Rīga and the area surrounding it are the center of the trade in fake certificates, with people sometimes travelling considerable distances from other parts of Latvia to get their hands on one. In almost all cases, there are intermediaries who bring the customer and issuer together.

The recipients of the fake vaccinations tell the police they did it for various reasons: fear of an allergic reaction, fear of sudden death, belief in YouTube conspiracy theories, or not trusting scientists and medicine.

Law enforcement officers are confident that they will find all the holders of fake certificates eventually, and the sooner the better, given the risks involved in remaining unprotected against the virus. They also point out that in some cases it means a vaccine dose is wasted when someone either in Latvia or elsewhere could have made honest use of it, making it a waste of public money as well as a fraud.

Police did not want to comment on how many forged Covid-19 certificates were in circulation. Earlier, the police mentioned an estimate of 200. The Office for the Prevention and Combating of Corruption (KNAB) has also spoken of several hundred.

And police say that while the law is fully able to deal with such cases, it does have at least one completely novel aspect: it has never been the case before that people pay large sums not to receive a service to which they are entitled free of charge.

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