The Italian police have shut down several groups on the mobile messaging app Telegram where users were selling fake COVID-19 health passes required to access services and leisure activities.
Italy introduced the so-called green pass on Friday.
It shows if someone has received at least one vaccine dose, recovered from coronavirus within the past six months, or tested negative in the previous 48 hours.
The police said in a statement on Monday that they had disbanded 32 Telegram groups operating around the country that were offering fake versions of the pass for up to 500 euros ($588) in cryptocurrency or online shopping vouchers.
“Thousands of users were registered on well-known communication platforms where fake green passes were offered for sale, with an absolute guarantee of anonymity,” the statement said.
Four people were placed under investigation on suspicion of fraud and forgery.
Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government adopted the green pass, which takes digital or paper form, to try to accelerate vaccinations in the face of the highly contagious Delta variant.
But some Italians say it tramples on freedoms and is an indirect way of making vaccines obligatory.
As of August 6, the pass is required to access gyms, swimming pools, museums, cinemas and to eat indoors at restaurants.
From September 1, it will also be mandatory for university students and to travel on trains, planes, ships and coaches.
Italy has registered 128,220 COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic reached the country in February of last year, the second-worst toll in Europe and the eighth-highest in the world. It has recorded 4.4 million cases to date.
However, some citizens are still reluctant to get vaccinated, even as hospitalisations are rising again.
Some 66 percent of Italians have had at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose and about 55 percent are fully inoculated, the latest data show.
According to the health ministry, about 20 million green passes have been downloaded in a population of about 60 million.
“It’s an extraordinary number that shows the awareness and participation of citizens of our country in the fight against COVID,” Health Minister Roberto Speranza wrote on Facebook on Monday.