In Covid-Era Travel Scam, Fraudsters Offer Fake Test Results

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In many parts of the world, travelers must show a negative Covid-19 test before catching a flight, but a number of recent arrests suggest the results won’t all be authentic.

Authorities in Indonesia, France and the U.K. say they have arrested the purveyors of falsified coronavirus tests.

“As long as travel restrictions remain in place due to the Covid-19 situation, it is highly likely that production and sales of fake test certificates will prevail,” Europol, the European Union’s law-enforcement agency, said this month.

Allegations of Covid-19 testing fraud have been cropping up around the world. A man was arrested outside of London Luton Airport in late January in connection with the sale of bogus Covid-19 test certificates.

In November, French authorities arrested seven people for selling false certificates to travelers at Charles de Gaulle Airport, near Paris. Police first got wind of the fraud after discovering a passenger with a fake certificate on a flight to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. After the arrests, police found on the suspects’ phones more than 200 fake certificates, which allowed people to fly internationally, according to French prosecutors.

Airports in Paris and Singapore as well as airlines including United and JetBlue are experimenting with apps that verify travelers are Covid-free before boarding. WSJ visits an airport in Rome to see how a digital health passport works. Photo credit: AOKpass

In late January, police in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, said they arrested eight people who were allegedly involved in a scam to sell fabricated negative test results to travelers.

Indonesian authorities that month arrested 15 people in a separate scheme, accusing them of offering fake results for about $70 each. Police say a former health-office worker at the city’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport got his hands on a soft copy of a negative test certificate and, starting in October, used it to print around 20 falsified test results a day.

In the Philippines, a government research institute affiliated with the health department warned last month that people posing as its employees were selling fake Covid-19 test results.

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Taiwan barred Indonesian migrant workers in December, saying it couldn’t trust Covid-19 test results from the country. Earlier that month, four-fifths of the Indonesian workers who had provided Taiwanese authorities test results showing they were free of the virus had gone on to test positive for Covid-19 upon being swabbed in Taiwan.

“These reports are becoming increasingly inaccurate,”

Chen Shih-chung,

Taiwan’s health minister, said in December. “We really have no idea what kinds of problems they have.”

Indonesia’s government agency that handles migrant worker affairs said it would tighten oversight of migrant-worker testing to prevent fake tests.

The potential for fraud is rife amid a patchwork of international travel restrictions that have been adopted during the pandemic.

“Paper test results come not only in different formats and languages, but they can also be easily manipulated,” said

Albert Tjoeng,

a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, which represents about 290 airlines world-wide. He said that check-in agents must “try to determine the authenticity of multiple nonstandard test documents passengers present to them.”

The problem doesn’t have an easy solution. Some governments have warned of action. Singapore, for instance, says travelers who produce false test certificates will face restrictions on their ability to reside in the city-state in the future, while China’s government has warned of “legal responsibility.”

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One effort to make the test-verification process easier is CommonPass, a project backed by the nonprofit The Commons Project Foundation, under which each country will be asked to share its testing and vaccination requirements for travelers, and the names of the facilities that authorities trust to administer Covid-19 tests.

The designated facilities will then enter travelers’ Covid-19 testing and vaccination information into data systems that can be accessed by CommonPass, allowing individuals to share this data with airlines and border authorities. “It’s a way of issuing effectively a certificate—a digital certificate, like a test certificate or a vaccination record—but in a way that’s tamper proof,” said

Paul Meyer,

chief executive of the Commons Project.

A passenger presents documents at a Covid-19 testing center in the arrivals area of Charles de Gaulle Airport this month. In November, French authorities arrested seven people for selling false certificates to travelers at the airport.



Photo:

christophe archambault/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The CommonPass was tested on several international flights last year, and the Commons Project says it is coordinating its efforts with more than 20 governments.

IATA says it is also developing a mobile app, called the IATA Travel Pass, that will allow passengers to share test results with authorities in a way that the association says will make it nearly impossible to travel with fake documents.

But getting all countries to accept the same digital passes is a challenge, creating hurdles in an already difficult travel regime.

“Without the ability to trust Covid-19 tests—and eventually vaccine records—across international borders, many countries will feel compelled to retain full travel bans and mandatory quarantines for as long as the pandemic persists,” said

Bradley Perkins,

chief medical officer at the Commons Project and a former chief strategy and innovation officer at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Write to Jon Emont at [email protected]

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