It’s an often used saying that where there is an opportunity for crime, crime will always find a way to exploit it. As countries clamped down on travel and mandated the need for a negative test result to enter their borders – so came an opportunity for crime to stick its foot into the door.
The Malta Independent on Sunday can now reveal that 18 people have been caught trying to use fake Covid-19 test results to leave the country – and, following an interview with the Police’s Immigration Department head Inspector Lara Butters, also reveal how people are acquiring these fake results.
Many countries have required a negative Covid-19 swab test result no longer than 72 hours prior to travel since around November last year. That requirement gave rise to this new brand of fake documents – one which police only caught onto by coincidence.
It was in January this year that three people were arrested while in possession of fake travel documents. These three people, who were all foreigners, had gone through great lengths and expense to acquire the said fake travel documents so that they could leave the country to go elsewhere.
“We had a person in front of us who should not have had a document to fly in the first place. But they had a document, a flight ticket, and a test result all under the same name. At first we thought that he might have gone for the swab test and used the passport he had bought as identification – but once we got thinking about it, we figured that this person already didn’t have money, having spent a huge sum to get the fake passport. So we questioned why he would go to a private clinic to get a Covid test done”, Inspector Butters explains.
“So we dug a bit deeper and, after checking with the clinic, we realised that the test result was in fact fake”, she continues.
It was this case that alerted police to the presence of this phenomenon in Malta.
Butters (above) admits that it’s possible that there were cases of fake test results which they had not noticed, but on the other hand is thankful that they realised about the existence of this phenomenon relatively early.
Since then, a total of 18 people have been caught trying to travel with fake test results – all bar one woman are foreigners, and all were attempting to leave the country.
Asked how such fake tests are acquired, Inspector Butters explains that police have seen three distinct ways which people have employed to get fake test results.
The most common means has been through a mobile application. Through this application, people can tamper with the document as they please and then try to use it to get through border control. Many of the people caught using this means deleted the application right after using it.
The majority of the 18 caught have used this means to fake their document.
Another means of acquiring the test is by simply purchasing it. Butters explains that there have been a small number of cases out of the 18 who had contacted someone online, met a person they do not know and simply paid for a fake test result.
The price of such a document was usually around €40 or €45 – a cheaper price than is being seen for similar fake documents in other European countries.
The third means is one which traces back to the first case of fake results which was found. Butters explained that a fake Covid-19 test result can be acquired as part of a “package deal”, which would include a fake passport, flight tickets and any other documents one would require to travel.
The price of such a package is far, far higher than the price of acquiring the test alone – however Butters noted that the people using this option are those who cannot travel in the first place, such as refugees who arrived from the African continent.
Asked how police can realise that a test result is fake, Butters admitted that when catching the first case, they hadn’t initially realised that the test result was fake. However – giving details which this newsroom won’t publish in order not to tip off those who are making these tests – Butters assured that there are differences which can be detected once the police know what they are looking for, which is what has led to more cases being caught.
Asked whether the police had managed to trace, perhaps through information acquired from those who are caught, people who are manufacturing these test results, Butters noted that while the majority of cases involved people using an app and tampering the document themselves, there are cases where there were others involved.
She said that police had linked one of the cases to someone who may be manufacturing the tests, and investigations are ongoing into other cases where no link has been found thus far. In the case of people who are purchasing the so-called “package deal”, there are also investigations ongoing from squads who work specifically on catching fake passport rings.
What about motive? Again – there have been three general reasons seen across the 18 cases caught so far.
Butters explains that those who buy this so-called “package deal” are doing so in an attempt to leave the country when they shouldn’t be leaving.
Then, there were cases of other people who had opted for acquiring a fake test result in order to travel after they had gone for a swab test like anyone else, but had not received their result before the flight. Out of fear that they would lose their flight, they would opt to acquire a fake test result.
Finally, Butters lamented, there are people who used a fake test result because they simply couldn’t care enough to go and get tested themselves before flying.
On those who have been caught, all 18 of them have been charged in court.
The charge itself – which relates to tampering of documents – is a serious one, Butters says, and it carries with it a maximum sentence of a year in prison or a hefty fine.
“It is a serious crime, as you can be positive for Covid-19 and then travel with the virus, without a sense of respect to the people travelling with them”, Butters adds.
She noted that some of those who have been caught have been handed prison sentences, while others have been handed fines, and others have been given suspended sentences. Other cases are still sub-judice.
Asked whether any cases of people coming into Malta with fake Covid-19 test results have been found, Butters replies in the negative – but she points out that people may have been stopped at the point of departure with such results.
She explains in fact that Europol have recently published a document stating that these fake test results are a European phenomenon – she notes that cases were recently found at London’s Luton Airport, in France, and in Greece.
“Ultimately, this is organised crime: there is an opportunity, and once there is an opportunity, criminals will try and take it up”, Butters concludes.