The Reason People Are Faking Covid-19 Test Results To Travel (It’s Not Because They Have Covid)

Several months ago I wrote that as countries started requiring negative Covid-19 tests in order to travel people would start faking negative test results.

  • The harder it is to get a test, the more likely faking results will be. It’s not primarily about ‘people with Covid-19 trying to travel’ as much as people looking for an easier way to get through the requirement.

  • The more requirements, such as using specific test providers or specific tests, and the scarcer those tests are, the more likely faking results becomes.

A simple testing regime, where rapid antigen tests are accepted from any provider and can be offered even at the airport prior to flights is going to mean the least faked results. So even if antigen tests aren’t the ‘gold standard’ PCR tests they need to be judged against PCR tests, including faked tests. 95% of passengers on a single flight faked their tests.

  • PCR tests are highly accurate they take more time and pick up very small trace amounts of viral RNA even dead virus long after someone is infectious.

    It takes “weeks or months” for the debris to clear, says Mina. “The average duration people are PCR positive is about 25 to 35 days,” he says. “The average time people are infectious is between four and eight days.” Most of the people walking around with PCR-detectable viral RNA in their nasal passages are post-infectious.

  • Cheap lateral flow tests can be done in half an hour, and are great for picking up those that are currently infectious. They “only return a positive result for about four to eight days in the infection cycle.”

For most purposes lateral flow tests are good enough, and give you the information you’re most interested in: can this person be around others right now? But they’re likely to miss some people who will become infectious yet still have a lower viral load. They don’t offer a guarantee for ‘test and release’ but would work better for ‘quarantine for a few days and then test’.

In other words, there are tradeoffs. Ultimately testing needs to be available to find cases and encourage people to isolate and scaling lateral flow tests is far easier than PCR tests, such that you can do more tests and do them frequently.

Two people who faked their tests describe what they did (HT: Paperboy415)

“I just fired up photoshop and changed the date,” wrote one man who had doctored results for an entire group of friends to Motherboard. “Fun fact, the document [test result] was in French whereas they were in Sweden the day it was supposedly made, but they didn’t see a problem in that.”

The other person took a slightly less sophisticated route and changed the date of an old test with Microsoft Paint for his vacation to Southern Europe.

In both cases it wasn’t the difficulty getting tested that was the problem, it was the cost of the tests that drove them to fake their results. That’s an argument for cheaper tests.

A negative Covid test scalper was just arrested at London Luton airport too. We can all react with shock and horror at the individual, but it points to a problem in need of solving too. If you aren’t going to shut down travel altogether, then any testing policy needs to weigh tradeoffs.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Why would people even go to the trouble and risk of getting the real tests when you can get them for a couple bucks on the net in about 10 minutes? Traveling around town to go get a test would actually increase one’s chances of catching the cooties!

  2. According to WHO, the PCR tests will give a false positive at a higher rate when the person tested has a lower rate of the virus present…the lower the rate, the chance of a false positive…as of 01/23/2021, WHO has stated the the PCR test should not be the sole criteria for determining if a person has the virus.
    I find it more than interesting that WHO decided to go pubic with their findings only after Biden was inaugurated.
    On another topic, where will returning international passengers be quarantined? When one arrives at their final destination or at a government designated facility when first one first arrives in the U.S. And at whose cost?

  3. As someone who got sick and recovered from Covid-19 I have very little fear of reinfection, even from the new strain. What I do fear is a government hell bent on making my life miserable and making me jump through needless hoops. As far as I’m concerned the cat is out of the bag. The damage is already done to the people of planet earth. That being said, I still wear a mask ( for other people’s mental health) and I keep six feet distance from other people. Nevertheless, the Covid Cops will do what they can to give everyone a false sense of security.

  4. Willful use of, or attempt to knowingly use, fake/misleading test results to travel to the US is a federal crime in the US.

    As much as I, as someone allowed to still travel back and forth between the US and Europe, find and don’t love the additional cost in money and time involved to test for my trips, and as much as I doubt the utility of a 72-hour test requirement pre-travel to add to public health safety, there is still a need to comply with the regulation so as to not risk getting a criminal record and whatever punishment that follows from non-compliance.

  5. @ Alan. Holy Covid 19 crap! Another rational thinker on this site. Well, your post is only two hours old so I’m sure there will be those getting ready to sling their vitriol your way.
    Thanks for a refreshing bit of clear thinking, it’s rare and to be cherished.

  6. If a test was in the $20-30 range people would be more willing to pay but $100 or more is ridiculous.

    People using MS Paint is really an amateur move. Most test results come in pdf so you just convert it to word, change the date and convert it back to pdf. None will ever notice this way.

  7. I think it’s smart to fake tests.

    It’s so annoying getting the real one, for no reason, to cross a border.

    1000% glad there is a black market (or just use photoshop, lol).

    Dumb laws always get circumvented.
    Requiring tests is epically dumb, so, there is a black market.

    Shocked anyone is shocked by this.
    It’s how we humans get what we want.

  8. Yea? How do we know they don’t have covid? Fact is they don’t know and don’t care if they risk other people. Hopefully people who get caught doing this face significant prosecution. Tests should be cheaper but if they can afford to pay for the flights then they can afford the tests.

  9. As a disclaimer I and everyone on my team are tested for Covid-19 once a week and yes, many of us still travel but not as much as we used to. Regarding testing requirements and positivity rates. Here are internal data for one of the major Universities in the SouthEast. The University did pay for PCR testing for all faculty, staff, and students coming after winter break. By Jan 20 about 20,000 people were tested. The positivity rate was below 2% (positivity rate in that state is >11%). This means they found about 400 people with possible Covid-19. According to 99.6% cases of Covid-19 are in mild conditions. Based on this number, out 400 found cases all but 1.6 patient would experience mild symptoms of Covid.-19. Most likely that number is not 1 or 2 patients but Zero because all administrators and older professors continued to work 100% remotely and were not required to test. It is very likely that the the kids who were tested positive would not even notice that otherwise. The PCR tests from external government contractors typically run at $100 or so and therefore the overall cost of this testing was likely exceeding $2M. One would say it was important to do these tests to stop the Covid-19 from spreading. Really? They were testing a sub population with 2% positivity rate whereas the State on average has >11%..

  10. I can afford to travel, but tests are too expensive. It’s inconvenient to get a test. The tests aren’t 100% effective so why do them at all. I’m special and the laws and rules don’t apply to me. If I get a test that’s one less for others to have. There are easier ways around the tests – screw the health risks. I’m worried about the risk of driving around town looking for a test, but the risk of flying elsewhere else are fine. And I love showing others you how to cheat.

  11. The point I was trying to make is that Covid-19 tests are largely useless except for the companies making money by offering them. Right now there is no flu and. therefore, if you have some Covid-like symptoms then yes, there is a high probability you got Covid-19. Either way, as a precaution, such a person should self- isolate. If the symptoms worsen, see medical attention and you will likely to get tested at that stage.
    Note that back in March / April we did not test for Covid in the US. Now we are testing millions. Did you see any dents in the pandemic due to testing?

  12. The government can pass whatever silly regulations it likes, but it can never change the immutable laws that govern economics any more than it can change biology. It’s been repeatedly demonstrated throughout history that when government enforces absurd and useless laws that serve little or no purpose and which are outweighed by legitimate human interests and desires, that people will simply find a way to ignore them. We’ve seen this during prohibition, throughout the drug wars, throughout American and European immigration restrictions, through attempts at confiscatory (and less confiscatory) taxation, etc., etc. Human ingenuity has found ways to bypass all of them, despite massive hurdles and massive costs. It is pure folly to think that the covid tests can’t and won’t be gamed when their burdens outweigh their benefits — and many who travel only for leisure are completely tone deaf to the massive burdens and miseries imposed on a great many by governments’ arbitrary travel restrictions which have separated families, prevented people from earning a living or maintaining their businesses, and made education impossible.

    When people need to travel – when they need to visit a sick child or a dying parent, when they need to deal with a business matter that is critical to the welfare of their family, when they need to simply express our innate wanderlust – they will travel. If the government makes it impossible or inordinately difficult to comply with the laws, people will find a way around them.

    This is a great feature of humanity, and not a bug. We’re not the government’s playthings and shouldn’t be forced to be part of their political theatrics. I doff my hat to those who refuse to submit and capitulate to stupidity, with every absurd rationalization known to man.

  13. @EastCoaster – I agree with you that people may well know whether they have COVID-19 or not. I’m not so sure they would volunteer that information when they want to fly, rather than just flying anyway. No further risk to them.

  14. @Mark who said: This is a great feature of humanity, and not a bug. We’re not the government’s playthings and shouldn’t be forced to be part of their political theatrics.

    Spoken like someone who didn’t have a family member die after contracting Covid (from someone else, of course).
    We’re not government playthings, as you said. But aren’t we members of a society? Do we not owe something to our neighbors in the way of participating in precautions?

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