A fake COVID card can cause real trouble for college students. It’s also likely a crime. – USA TODAY

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Students who use phony COVID-19 vaccine cards to skirt mandates at U.S. colleges and universities are risking disastrous consequences, according to school officials and other experts.

Hundreds of colleges and universities now require proof of COVID-19 inoculations. The process to confirm vaccination at many schools can be as simple as uploading a picture of the vaccine card to the student’s portal. However, an easy click of the mouse could spell a hard road for students’ academic futures – if that card is a fake.

“At a minimum, it’s likely to be a federal crime … because when you get the vaccine card it has the CDC stamp on it,” Erika K. Wilson, a professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told USA TODAY. “So, if people are buying those fake cards, it could certainly fall under that statute.”

Selling fake, blank cards has become a cottage industry in some corners of the internet. In at least one case, a person was arrested in California for selling fake cards

Both faculty and students at dozens of schools interviewed by The Associated Press say they are concerned about how easy it is to get fake vaccine cards. Growing concern has even reached the federal level, with the FBI and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issuing a joint statement in March urging people not to buy, create or sell fabricated vaccine cards.

Vaccine passport: Honor system, paper cards won’t cut it for COVID-19 vaccine verification, experts say

Without a federal vaccination database, the easy-to-forge paper cards have become the default proof of vaccination. But it can be possible to determine if a card is faked.

Wilson said it wouldn’t be difficult for colleges and universities to eventually verify the legitimacy of the card: “When you get your vaccination shot, most county health departments have some record of it, so there is a way to cross-reference it,” she said.

And getting caught with a fake COVID-19 vaccine card could derail a student’s academic career.

Elizabeth Heaton, vice president of Bright Horizons College Coach, said submitting a fake vaccine card is “the absolute worst thing that a student could do.”

“Because now you’re taking something where the college wants you to get a vaccine and you don’t want to get it, and it’s a disagreement, and you’re turning it into a situation where you are lying and falsifying documents,” Heaton told USA TODAY. “And that is super serious.”

It’s not yet clear how schools would handle such an infraction, but Katie Burns, a college admissions counselor from IvyWise and a former senior assistant director of admissions at MIT, said it could be seen as a violation of “community standards” — like using a fake ID. It could also be seen as an issue of “academic dishonesty” — like plagiarism. The latter often quickly leads to a student being expelled.

“Almost all colleges and universities have some internal process for meting out student discipline, and I can’t see why a violation of a policy that makes use of a fake vaccination card wouldn’t go through that same internal procedure,” Wilson said.

Expulsion from school is on the table as a disciplinary option, multiple institutions told USA TODAY. 

At Albertus Magnus College, a Catholic private liberal arts college based in Connecticut, submitting a fake vaccine card would be considered a form of “falsification,” which is a direct violation of the college’s student conduct code and community standards.

A student’s failure to comply with the student code of conduct “may result in administrative withdrawal from the college,” according to the college’s official website.

August 6: Supreme Court asked to block Indiana University’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate

Albion College, a private liberal arts college in Michigan which requires students and employees to submit their vaccination records to the school’s COVID-19 Team, said submitting a fake vaccine card could trigger the school’s student conduct process, which could lead to a hearing and possible suspension or expulsion.

“We take this process very seriously in order to protect our campus and the community and ensure a safe start to the school year,” said Leroy Wright, vice president for student development and dean of students, in a statement.

Michael Trivette, co-founder of College Transitions, said the seriousness of public health associated with lying about vaccination status would make expulsion a credible option for colleges and universities in their disciplinary process.

“Given that the student knowingly put others at risk, it’s certainly plausible that the institution would view the action as grounds for dismissal,” Trivette wrote in an email to USA TODAY.

Trivette also said a public record of using a fake vaccine card can haunt a student for the rest of their college career.

“If a student has a record of forgery and subsequent disciplinary infractions on their academic record, it may negatively impact their admission prospects for transfer admissions and/or graduate school admissions,” Trivette said.

Contributing: Roselyn Romero, The Associated Press