KYIV, Ukraine -- It doesn't take long to buy a fake COVID-19 vaccine certificate in Ukraine. Just typing the words into Google brings up a slew of advertisements offering a certificate "without visiting a doctor."
A would-be customer sends their passport details, address and a phone number through the Telegram messenger app, and the next day, a document showing fake proof of vaccination with Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine arrives in the post, according to several people who have bought one of the fake certificates, and who spoke to ABC News on condition of anonymity because the practice is illegal. They said prices for the certificates can vary anywhere from $20 to $200 (USD) with some fetching as much as $380.
The COVID vaccination certificate black market is becoming a growing concern in Ukraine, which is suffering from a worsening third wave of the pandemic amid low vaccination numbers and as the government tries to impose restrictions on the unvaccinated. The number of people who have already bought fake certificates is unknown, but some Telegram app channels advertising them have thousands of subscribers.
Svitlana is one of them. She said she bought a fake certificate in September showing she was inoculated with Pfizer/BionTech's vaccine.
"I don't trust neither vaccines nor the government,'' she told ABC News, explaining her decision and declining to give her last name.
The demand for fake vaccine certificates exists despite the ease of getting a free COVID vaccine in Ukraine. As of late September there are over 11 million doses of different coronavirus vaccines in Ukraine now for a population of 44.1 million, according to Ukraine's health ministry. The vaccine is free for all Ukrainians and in Kyiv, walk-in vaccination centers are even open in some shopping malls.
But despite the availability of vaccines, Ukraine is among one of the least vaccinated countries in Europe, with only around 30.2% of the population having received one dose and 14.7% fully vaccinated, according to a vaccine tracker published by Bloomberg. In late September the health minister Viktor Lyashko said 34,000 doses of Pfizer would be dumped because they had expired.
The low numbers are the product of widespread vaccine hesitancy among Ukrainians: 56% don't plan to get vaccinated at all, according to a poll from the Ilko Kucheriv Foundation, a well-known independent think tank that conducts sociological studies.
"We observe this trend globally, however in Ukraine, misinformation about vaccination is extremely politicized and is spread both among the general public and the medical community," Murat Shahin, head of the UNICEF office in Ukraine told ABC News this month.
Another problem is lack of quality medical education on vaccination which leads to incorrect practices and confuses patients, Shahin said.
"We also observe a suboptimal level of trust to state institutions," he said. "Meanwhile, people trust their relatives, local leaders and their doctors and nurses."
Some of the social media channels offering fake vaccine certificates are part of that ecosystem pushing anti-vaccine sentiment, sharing anti-vax information and news stories, while urging people to buy fake certificates to avoid getting the shot.
According to the same Ilko Kucheriv Foundation poll, some are reluctant because they are not sure about the safety of the vaccines. Some of those who spoke to ABC News said they resist just because they are forced to vaccinate.
There is no mandatory vaccination in Ukraine, except for teachers and civil servants, meaning there is little pressure to vaccinate. But some companies are pressing their employees to vaccinate, threatening to cut salaries or reduce vacation days.
And a vaccine certificate is necessary to travel. Ukraine has created its own digital certificate in an app, called Diya ("Action") that is valid in EU countries.
Wanting to go abroad, some Ukrainians are refusing the free shot of the real vaccine and instead are paying money for a fake certificate. On a site listing the phone number of one seller, users reviewed the service.
"We've just crossed the border in Rava Russka [in Poland], our border service scanned the certificate and let us go without any problems," one wrote. "I took it to Germany. All worked," another said.
Some services provide paper certificates. A fake official stamp is applied using the real names of doctors and clinics, based on samples posted by some of the Telegram channels offering them.
Getting the digital proof of vaccination without being vaccinated is more difficult. It is still possible for a bribe, according to some people ABC News talked to on condition of anonymity.
Some Ukrainians are simply paying doctors to sign off on their digital vaccine certificates, by entering them as vaccinated in Ukraine's state vaccination register. After that, a digital certificate appears in the official Diya app, which is also valid in the EU.
Oleksiy Vyskyb, Ukraine's deputy minister for digital transformation, told ABC News that some doctors were charging a fee to falsely enter people's name into the state register showing vaccinated citizens.
One of the sellers confirmed that in a Telegram chat with an ABC reporter posing as a potential customer. ABC News did not actually purchase a fake certificate.
"We put the data into the register," a person who identified themselves as a support manager responded when asked by the reporter how it would work.
Another channel said that the clinic where the false vaccination happens "dumps" two real doses of Pfizer and VaxZevria after pretending the client has received them.. They also offer "to save" these doses for the client to be vaccinated later if they change their mind before the vaccine expires two months later. Both options cost around $60.
According to some advertisements you can get a forged vaccination certificate even if you're a foreigner. It will cost a bit more than for a Ukrainian citizen -- $380 if you're abroad, according to one ad.
Besides becoming part of a dangerous invisible pool of unvaccinated people that undermine restrictions and spread infection, those buying fake certificates may be unable to get a real shot later on since they are already recorded as having received one in the state registry, Shahin said.
Ukraine's authorities say they are now trying to crackdown on the practice. Ukraine's security service, the SBU, together with the country's cyberpolice, said they have opened nearly 500 criminal proceedings relating to the selling of forged paper vaccination certificates and that more than 50 web resources have been blocked. So far, only three cases have been opened against doctors for allegedly entering false information into the register. Those detained face up to six years in prison. But government says it wants to increase the punishment.
This week, Ukraine imposed a full lockdown in four regions as Ukraine's daily numbers continue to worsen, recently hitting its highest level since the country's second wave in the spring. Ukrainian authorities reported 22,415 new confirmed infections and 546 deaths in the past 24 hours, the highest numbers since the start of the pandemic. Most experts also believe the real number of cases and deaths are likely higher, since not all are recorded with testing.
"People who use fake certificates create a dangerous space for others," Maria Karchevych, Ukraine's deputy health minister said at a press conference in Kyiv last week.
She said the fake COVID vaccine certificate industry also threatens Ukraine's international image since Ukraine was among the first non-European Union countries to have its national vaccine pass recognized by the EU for travel.
"EU countries expect transparency and honesty in using such documents," she said.