Need time off from work to watch the World Cup? If you're in China, no problem. Online stores there are providing fake doctor's notes — even extensive falsified medical records — to get you days of sick leave so you can enjoy your favorite teams.
The service may be particularly appealing, given the time difference with World Cup host Brazil. China is 11 hours ahead of Rio. So if you want to catch opening matches, you have to start watching at midnight, Shanghai time.
I'm not a big soccer fan, but I wanted to order my own doctor's note just to see how the process works. My news assistant contacted an online retailer that traffics in all kinds of medical records. For $33, I received a doctor's note from a famous Shanghai hospital as well as an extensive diagnosis. The document, which arrived by courier, said I was suffering from gastroenteritis and would need five days of rest. It was signed by a Dr. Hu.
It gets better. The medical records state that Dr. Hu saw me Sunday, June 15 — three days from now. So, the suggested rest period perfectly coincides with the coming workweek.
Flat-screen TV and sofa here I come!
The company that provided the fraudulent documents sells all kinds of medical records on a site it runs on Taobao, the eBay of China. Death certificates and surgery records go for $15. Results for blood tests, urine tests, ultrasounds or CT scans run $50. A DNA paternity test goes for $100.
The official stamp on my documents appeared authentic, but the letterhead looked like it came from a desktop printer. Curious to see whether the Shanghai hospital knew anything about this, I went in search of Dr. Hu.
At the hospital, I showed the documents to some nurses, who shook their heads. They'd never seen medical records like mine. They called Dr. Hu, who said she'd never heard of me and hadn't signed anything. The nurses said her signature appeared to have been forged.
Not all fake sick notes are such lousy forgeries like mine. My office mate, a correspondent with the BBC, used a different supplier and got a fake sick note for the same hospital that looks exactly like a real one. And he paid only half of what I did, so I feel like I got ripped off.
It's hard to say how big the market for fake doctor's notes is. Today, NPR contacted our supplier to ask about our records. He said he was so busy with orders yesterday, he didn't even remember us.
Taobao, which is owned by Alibaba, China's biggest e-commerce company, has tried to crack down on the fake-doctor-note racket by blocking search terms to keep customers from finding online peddlers. But tweak a few search words and you can still find somebody who will provide you a written diagnosis for gastroenteritis — or any other illness you want.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's Shanghai correspondent. You can follow him @franklangfitt.