A New Jersey woman who used the Instagram handle @AntiVaxMomma was charged in Manhattan on Tuesday with a conspiracy to sell hundreds of fake coronavirus vaccination cards over the social media platform.
The woman, Jasmine Clifford, 31, was charged in Manhattan criminal court with having sold about 250 forged cards over Instagram. She 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. Ms. Barkley was also charged in the conspiracy.
Fifteen people were charged in the scheme in all, including 13 people who purchased the cards — some of whom worked in hospitals and nursing homes — and were each charged with a felony.
Ms. Clifford was expected to be charged with two felonies and a misdemeanor, and Ms. Barkley was expected to be charged with a felony and a misdemeanor. Their lawyers could not immediately be reached for comment.
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.”
Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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.
Understand Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.
- Vaccine rules. On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for an increase in mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies have been increasingly mandating vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
- Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
- Schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for education staff. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.
- Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
- New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, although enforcement does not begin until Sept. 13. Teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system will need to have at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
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.
@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.”
Chelsia Rose Marcius contributed reporting.