Feds crack counterfeit COVID-19 vaccination card rings in Detroit

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — Federal prosecutors Wednesday charged two people in connection with selling COVID-19 vaccination cards, including a Detroit man accused of selling counterfeit Chinese-made cards on Instagram and a nurse who sold legitimate cards for $200 each.

Unsealed federal court records describe a burgeoning, black market bypass for people who want to appear to have received a vaccine amid a rise in vaccine mandates at public- and private-sector jobs and universities. 

Federal investigators say Detroiter Rapheal Smiley offered for sale phony COVID-19 vaccination cards on Instagram.

The investigations are part of a national COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force that combines the efforts of the Justice Department and investigative agencies to fight pandemic-related fraud.

“These arrests reflect our deep commitment to protecting the health of our community and preventing this dangerous fraud from affecting our most vulnerable citizens,” Acting U.S. Attorney Saima Mohsin said in a statement. “Regardless of whether an individual chooses to get vaccinated, we urge everyone to avoid turning to schemes like these to evade vaccination requirements. Importing these cards is a crime. Selling these cards is a crime."

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have seized shipments of thousands of vaccine cards at ports across the country, including this summer in Charlotte, North Carolina, Memphis, Tennessee, and Honolulu, according to federal records.

The Federal Trade Commission, meanwhile, reports pandemic-related fraud has flourished, costing consumers more than $564.5 million in losses, largely attributable to price-gouging.

Detroit resident Rapheal Smiley, 32, was arrested Wednesday after a month-long investigation that started when federal agents discovered a box of 52 fraudulent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccination cards at a FedEx facility in Memphis, Tennessee.

Investigators learned the cards contained a phony CDC seal and were shipped from a Chinese supplier previously identified as selling counterfeit vaccination cards. The package was addressed to Smiley's home in the 20400 block of Mackay Street in Detroit.

The investigation led to Instagram account "ralphie_reimagined" that offered vaccination cards for sale. The account's profile photo resembled Smiley's driver's license photo, according to a complaint filed in federal court.

"The caption for the photo, written by “ralphie_imagined” stated “GOING FAST FEW LEFT…” Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Bryan Randall wrote in an affidavit filed in court.

Investigators seized these counterfeit COVID-19 vaccination cards in Memphis, Tenn.

Investigators later learned of a second shipment from China to Smiley. The Aug. 22 shipment also contained counterfeit vaccination cards, according to the agent.

On Sept. 2, federal agents made a controlled delivery at Smiley's home of some of the cards seized the month before in Memphis. Investigators raided the home and found more counterfeit cards and seized electronic devices that contained purchase records for more vaccination cards, according to the affidavit.

Smiley, who did not respond to a message seeking comment, was charged with trafficking in counterfeit goods, identity document fraud and fraud involving department or agency seals. If convicted, Smiley could face more than 15 years in federal prison.

Separately, prosecutors charged registered nurse Bethann Kierczak, 37, of Southgate, with theft of government property and embezzlement related to a health care program. Prosecutors say she stole authentic COVID-19 vaccination cards from a Veterans Affairs hospital along with vaccine lot numbers to make the cards appear legitimate.

“At a time when Americans eagerly want to return to a normal way of life, these counterfeit vaccine cards undermine our confidence in COVID-19 vaccines,” said Vance Callender, special agent in charge of Homeland Security investigations field offices in Michigan and Ohio, in a statement.

Then, Kierczak started selling the cards to people throughout Metro Detroit in May, according to an unsealed complaint.

If convicted, she faces up to 10 years in prison. She did not respond to a message seeking comment and there was no defense lawyer identified in federal court records.

The investigation started with a tip from an informant who said Kierczak was selling the cards via Facebook Messenger. One message suggests she was obtaining the cards from a pharmacy.

“If you don’t forget to grab me about 10 of those things.. cough cough” (winking emoji)Ya know," the informant wrote in one message.

“I am here, I will do my best, this pharmacist seems to be a little protective of the cards, lol," Kierczak wrote.

rsnell@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @robertsnellnews