Group-IB helps Italian officials take down scammers selling COVID-19 docs via Telegram

Just days after the Italian government announced that it would tighten restrictions linked to its COVID-19 health pass, Italian police announced that they had broken up a criminal gang selling hundreds of fake passes and certificates via Telegram.

The cybercrime prosecutor’s office in Milan said in a statement that it had worked with Group-IB, a cyber security firm, to identify a handful people they believe acted as administrators in at least 35 different Telegram channels peddling what they claimed were “authentic Green Passes with QR codes.”

A Green Pass, first introduced in Israel, is a paper document or app that proves the holder has been fully vaccinated or has recovered from COVID. Last summer, Italy began to require the broad use of the Green Pass as part of its effort to fight the virus. People who want access to restaurants, museums, gyms, and high-speed trains are now required to show proof of vaccination, a negative rapid swab test, or recent recovery from the virus. In October, Italy became the first major European country to require the Green Pass for all workers, private and public.

According to Group-IB, the Green Pass scammers claimed that they had secured authentic passes from health care workers and would pass them to buyers who wanted to appear to be following COVID protocols. All buyers had to do was create a secret chat on Telegram and then provide personal information -- their names, date of birth, city of residence and tax code identifiers -- which the scammers said would be inserted in the QR code of their passes.

The gang offered customers a variety of payment methods from Bitcoin and Ethereum to PayPal money transfers and Amazon gift cards. Once the scammers received all that information and payment, they just deleted the chats and disappeared or, in some cases, provided a fake QR code.

According to Group-IB, the Telegram channels selling the passes had some 100,000 users and the average price for fake health pass was about $130. Neither the police nor Group-IB said how many passes were actually sold or how many people were rounded up as part of the scheme. Italian police would only say they had tracked down suspects in Veneto, Liguria, Apulia, and Sicily and they had confessed. Police said the investigation was ongoing.

News of the takedown comes just days after Italy announced tough new rules for the unvaccinated. Italy plans to introduce a so-called Super Green Pass, a "reinforced" version of the certificate that proves the holder has been vaccinated, recovered from the virus within the last six months or tested negative in the last couple of days.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi announced the new measures and he said the COVID situation in Italy is “under control, we are in the best situation in Europe thanks to the vaccination campaign” which, he said, had been a “remarkable success.”

Dina Temple-Raston

Dina Temple-Raston is the host and executive producer of the Click Here podcast as well as a senior correspondent at Recorded Future News. She previously served on NPR’s Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology, and social justice and hosted and created the award-winning Audible Podcast “What Were You Thinking.”

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