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Can you get in trouble for using or making a fake vaccine card?

So, if you buy one and try to use it, what kind of trouble could you get in? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

NEW ORLEANS — With a record-breaking fourth surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Louisiana, a renewed focus has been put on getting people vaccinated.

In the latest move to combat the surge that has put stress on Louisiana’s hospitals, people who want to go into bars, restaurants and other indoor venues in New Orleans will soon have to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a recent negative test. Mayor LaToya Cantrell says the new requirement begins on Monday, but there will be a one-week grace period before the city begins aggressive enforcement.

The vaccine requirement creates the possible temptation, for those who are adamantly opposed to getting the vaccine, of using a fake card. Although Louisiana residents can use the LA Wallet app to verify their status, there are no national databases that track vaccinations. So, if you are not using the app, it basically boils down to providing your card or a picture of it if you need to prove that you’ve gotten the shot.

The card itself is pretty no-frills - someone with the right card stock and a good hand at Photoshop could recreate a COVID-19 vaccination card pretty easily. And, in fact, there have been reports already of people doing just that for anywhere between $25 to $200 apiece. 

Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File

So, if you buy one and try to use it, what kind of trouble could you get in? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

According to attorney and 11Alive legal analyst Page Pate, using a fake vaccine card can constitute a federal crime - and can land you in prison for as many as five years.

Yes, using a card.

"You may be thinking, 'Look, I'm not gonna make the card, I'm just buying it off the internet. I'm gonna use it so my kid can go to school, I can go back to work, I can get into a restaurant or some other public place.' It does not matter," Pate says. "Because the law punishes the person who makes the card, who sells the card, but also anyone who takes that card, knowing it's false, knowing it's a fake, and uses it for almost any other purpose."

Pate points to federal statutes in 18 U.S. Code § 1017, which criminalizes using the official U.S. government logos on "any certificate, instrument, commission, document, or paper... with wrongful or fraudulent intent."

"It can be a federal crime to possess or use any fake vaccination card that contains a symbol of a United States governmental agency," Pate says. "If somebody makes a card like that and uses one of those symbols - it can be the Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC - if they put those symbols on a card without proper authorization, then they have committed a federal crime and it carries up to five years in prison."

And it can potentially go even deeper than that - under the state law in many states, you can also be tagged with a felony forgery offense. That can include altering a legitimate card to change its dates or indicate you've had a second shot when you've only had one, according to Pate.

He warns: "Be very careful - buying a fake vaccination card can be a federal felony offense."

And the FBI agrees. In March, the FBI issued a public service announcement warning that buying, using or filling in a blank vaccination record card with false information is a crime.

You can report suspicious activity involving fake vaccination record cards to police, the (1-800-HHS-TIPS or www.oig.hhs.gov); or the Internet Crime Complaint Center (www.ic3.gov).

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.