Forged Ontario vaccine proofs prompt Quebec to tighten verification process; police investigating
MONTREAL -- The Quebec government is putting a temporary hold on approving out-of-province proof of vaccinations from Ontario after hundreds of cases of fraud were discovered, CTV News has learned.
The Ministry of Health said it will make changes to its vaccine verification process after people were able to bypass the system in recent days using phoney immunization documents from Ontario.
CTV News obtained copies of some of these phoney documents. A forensic expert confirmed that Ontario’s proof of vaccines are easy to falsify.
“It's very easy to manipulate a PDF document, as there are a number of editing software present on the Internet that you download for free and you can make all the changes, all the editing,” said Shabnam Preet Kaur, a Docufraud Canada analyst.
“It's very hard to find the manipulations on the documents.”
A source told CTV News the fake certificates look as if they were issued in Toronto, the Peel region and North Bay.
Some of the fake documents also appear as if they came from British Columbia. But tiny mistakes on the documents raised red flags over the weekend, Quebec’s Ministry of Health and Social Services confirmed.
"We take this situation very seriously, and anyone trying to use or fabricate a fake vaccine passport faces risks of prosecution and heavy penalties,” the ministry said in a statement.
All other out-of-province documentation will now get additional scrutiny in Quebec, and Ontario's are directed into a separate file for additional checks.
POLICE INVESTIGATING 10 COMPLAINTS
On Thursday, neither Montreal police nor Quebec provincial police were able to say if investigations were underway on the issue. But on Friday, Montreal police confirmed they're investigating 10 cases.
"We have received 10 denunciations [or] complaints regarding the use of false documents related to the vaccination passport so far," said Montreal police spokesperson Anik de Repentigny in a statement to CTV on Friday afternoon.
Montreal police are only responsible for investigating those offenses reported to have taken place in their jurisdiction. Provincial police still haven't said if they're looking at similar complaints elsewhere.
There are two possible charges involved, said de Repentigny: fraud, for those who use false documents, or a more serious offence of breach of trust, if police find authorities giving illicit access to the vaccine database.
"If a person uses false documents to obtain a vaccine passport or sells false vaccine passports, the SPVM's Economic Crimes Section will launch a criminal investigation," she said.
"In very specific cases, such as the denunciation of a government employee who agrees to produce or sell fake vaccine passports, the investigation could be transferred to the Permanent Anti-Corruption Unit (UPAC). We then speak of breach of trust committed by a civil servant or of civil servant corruption."
QUEBEC INCREASING CHECKS ON OUT-OF-PROVINCE PAPERS
Fake out-of-province vaccine papers allow fraudsters to exploit vulnerabilities in Quebec's verification system.
Legitimate vaccine proof provided by other jurisdictions come in a range of formats, generally unfamiliar to Quebec workers, and they must inspect each on a case-by-case basis.
That process already required extra caution. At the Palais des congrès in downtown Montreal, staff always double check out-of-province documents.
“We do some additional steps to verify where they received the vaccine and then we take all the information from the vaccine proof and we enter it into our system to generate a Quebec QR code,” said Augusta Jones, who works for the Centre-sud health board.
Once it became obvious that people were trying to circumvent the system using fake vaccination proof from Ontario, local authorities in Quebec began increasing verification measures.
The health department is now going a step further. Ontario vaccination proofs are now kept in a binder for additional checks and QR codes are withheld for at least 24 hours.
"Some of the ones we've seen are misspellings, or it lacks an element of a proof we'd normally see from a specific place, like a watermark on it or the fonts don't match throughout the document,” Jones said.
PASSPORTS SOLD ONLINE FOR UP TO $500
The fakes can be bought online for people who know where to look. CTV News has contacted sellers offering the fakes anywhere from $200 to $500.
Some even offered fake Quebec QR codes right away, saying they would get the buyer's fabricated dose dates added into their online health file, bypassing the entire verification system.
"Your info will be registered in the database, you'll receive a QR code in 24 hours," one seller wrote, saying the two doses would be assigned dates but the buyer could pick "the vaccination centre of your choice."
"There's no risk," the seller added.
Cybersecurity expert Steve Waterhouse suspects that some people with access to Quebec's vaccine database could sell proof without providing the vaccine.
“There's already a scam ongoing with legitimate QR codes given by health professionals that are mandated to give out these QR codes and for a hefty sum — $500 to $1,000," he said.
"They do not give the shot to those people, but they give the QR code digitally signed by the province of Quebec to those people."
What isn't known now is how many unvaccinated people are entering bars and restaurants using a passport obtained with forged documents.