By Louis Brady, Yoana Petrova & Nicola Quaedvlieg
It’s June 2021. Best friends Zoey* and Uma* are waiting at the gate to board their flight from Florence, Italy to Amsterdam Schiphol. They are nervous.
They get to the front of the queue, where a staff member from the airline asks to see Uma’s PCR test certificate, which was required when entering the Netherlands at the time. Uma shows it on her phone.
“That’s not the right date,” says the staff member.
Uma apologises, assuring them that it must be an old one. She swipes on her phone to find the most recent certificate.
“Fuck, now she’s going to know it’s fake,” she thinks.
To save money, Zoey and Uma were both using fraudulent COVID-19 test certificates. Zoey’s had already been inspected and approved when checking in her hold luggage.
The flight attendant glances at Uma’s phone and ushers the two friends onboard. The attendant didn’t comment on the fact that the two certificates had the exact same serial number. Their certificates were not checked again. For Uma, it was “ridiculous and exhilarating.”
Zoey first travelled with a fake test certificate in March 2021. She booked a last-minute flight to the Netherlands from Italy to see her boyfriend and struggled to get the necessary test. She travelled with a certificate that her friend had altered using Photoshop. “This kind of, in a bad way, opened a world to me,” she told 9to5Groningen. “I don’t need to spend so much money considering my student budget, I can easily travel back and forth.”
Both Zoey and Uma travelled to or from the Netherlands at least five times over the course of 2021 using fraudulent COVID-19 test certificates.
They aren’t the only ones. Although the Dutch authorities don’t track the number of people caught for travelling with fraudulent COVID-19 test certificates, 9to5Groningen spoke to five other people who have done so in the past year. Each of these individuals claimed to know others who have also used forged COVID-19 test certificates to travel, which hints at the scale of the phenomenon.
This isn’t just a concern from the past either. COVID-19 tests are still required when entering the Netherlands under some circumstances, which have been shown below.
Zoey also flew from Bangkok to Amsterdam Schiphol in early January 2022. Although she did have a legitimate COVID-19 test certificate for this journey, she says that it wasn’t checked on either side.
A web of responsibility
For passengers arriving in the Netherlands, travel operators are responsible for checking and verifying COVID-19 documentation before departure. According to the Dutch government’s ‘instructions for operators flying to and from the Netherlands’, “airlines shall verify if passengers meet the […] requirements. If passengers fail to meet these conditions, they shall be refused on the flight and are not permitted to board the aircraft.”
The Dutch government states that the border police, the Koninklijke Marechaussee, conducts random checks of COVID-19 test certificates. However, Joris Drost, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, which is responsible for drawing up the instructions to flight operators, stated that there is no policy of the Koninklijke Marechaussee checking test certificates of arriving passengers.
A spokesperson from the Koninklijke Marechaussee also claimed that it is the municipal health service (GGD Kennemerland) that conducts checks of COVID-19 documents at Schiphol airport. GGD Kennemerland confirmed this but stated that they only check passengers arriving from “high-risk areas” on a random basis. They added that when checking paper test certificates, they look for proof of “the authority (approval stamp), doctor or medical institute, date, personal information.”
Without a global standard for COVID-19 test certificates, one way to verify their validity is to call the test provider and cross-reference the certificate with their records. “Airlines need the capability to check the validity [of these documents],” says Drost. “They need equipment to detect fraudulent documents,” he adds.
Uma doubts how often the authorities do this: “They’re not going to check the validity. They check so many a day, you think they care?” Uma believes that airlines are only concerned with passengers having a test certificate of some kind. “You just have to check off the boxes,” she says.
Some travel providers seem to take their role of checking test certificates seriously though. Tui Fly told 9to5Groningen that they check all passengers before departure, even though “that is sometimes difficult because that also results in queues.” They also, however, believe that “not every airline does that.” Other major airlines that fly in and out of Schiphol were unavailable to comment on their policies.
However, not all travellers arrive in the Netherlands by plane. A spokesperson for the Dutch train operator NS, which also runs trains to and from Belgium and Germany, said that they didn’t know who is responsible for checking passengers’ COVID-19 documents. 9to5Groningen is still awaiting an official response regarding NS’ policy.
Nowadays, photo editing software is both easily accessible and user friendly, so it takes almost no extra knowledge to know how to use them properly. This makes the creation of fake COVID-19 tests for travel easier and easier.
For each of Zoey and Uma’s journeys, Uma’s sister used Photoshop to change the names and dates on a legitimate PCR test certificate from several months before. They now have several genuine certificates from different countries, Uma’s so-called “trusted templates”, that they have repeatedly doctored. Uma showed 9to5Groningen nine versions of the certificate on her phone.
They change as little as possible, often leaving the serial number and time which the test was said to be taken untouched. They have also forged the same certificates for many of their friends. Uma’s sister even has a folder on her desktop named “Uma friends PCR”.
Elenore* also spoke to 9to5Groningen about making false test certificates. She was with her friends when they used Photoshop to change the details on their test certificates for their upcoming travels. “It took them no more than 3 minutes,” Elenore says, “despite us having a couple of drinks beforehand.”
The companies providing COVID-19 tests also play a role in ensuring the security of their test certificates. Some test certificates now include QR codes which link to a digital certificate but this is not a requirement for travel to or from the Netherlands and it is unclear whether they are used by authorities when checking certificates.
Bilal Yakhlaf, co-owner of commercial testing centres in Amsterdam, added such QR codes to his company’s test certificates in January 2021, after he discovered fraudsters editing them with Photoshop. None of the companies that 9to5Groningen reached out to responded to questions about how they were ensuring the security of their certificates.
Despite the ease of using photo editing software, it is also possible to buy fake certificates. Cybersecurity firm Check Point claims that the black market for false covid tests has grown during the Omicron wave, as countries reintroduced restrictions.
As early as November 2020, criminals were selling false PCR test certificates through social media platforms such as Whatsapp and Snapchat, according to AD. However, false test certificates are primarily being sold through the encrypted messaging service Telegram, a report by Check Point suggests.
A quick search on Telegram reveals many groups, some of which have tens of thousands of subscribers, where counterfeit certificates can be bought for as little as €40. Some ask for payment in cryptocurrency.
What happens if you are caught?
The punishment for travelling with a fraudulent COVID-19 certificate can be high. “No open borders for those who travel with false corona documents,” says Johan Delmulle, president of the Board of Prosecutors General. “Anyone who uses a falsified COVID-19 certificate will not be able to travel further, at least not to their holiday destination, but on the contrary will have to answer to the criminal court or receive a large fine.”
In early 2021, the court of North Holland convicted three men who attempted to leave the Netherlands with false-negative PCR certificates. All three men were sentenced to 60 hours of community service, suspended prison sentences of between two weeks and one month, as well as a probation period of two years.
“It gets easier”
Joris Drost, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, points out that aside from airlines being responsible for checking the documents, “it is also the responsibility of the traveller not to do it.” Spokespersons from the NS and Tui Fly also stressed this.
As one of those travellers, Zoey feels that being able to travel with more ease and fewer costs helped her during the worst of the pandemic. “It was a difficult time for a lot of people. But I was just really struggling with loneliness, and therefore being able to travel helped me a lot, to be with people closer to me.”
At first, Zoey felt guilty for using fake certificates, doing self-tests every time she travelled. “I definitely understood that I was really breaking a pretty big rule,” she says. “I’m not one to usually do that, especially where these kinds of measures are put into place for good reason […] the simple fact that we want to stop the spread of this virus.”
The more her fake test certificates went unnoticed by authorities, however, the more Zoey’s guilt waned. “It just obviously gets easier, or you feel a lot less guilty, the more you do it,” she says.
*Names have been changed