By Nina Mohan
Scammers are taking advantage of the confusion surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine distribution and using it as an opportunity to prey on consumers anxious to get their shots.
Because distribution varies state by state and changes are announced almost daily, there’s not a lot of clarity on when and how people can get vaccinated, explained Karen S. Hobbs, Assistant Director, Division of Consumer & Business Education at the Federal Trade Commission. “Officials are doing what they can, the best they can, but no state is immune to confusion and scammers are ready to take advantage,” she said.
“This is one of those schemes that, like the pandemic, is affecting literally everyone, everywhere,” she added.
Hobbs said the FTC has received numerous reports of vaccine scams, though none so far have involved large numbers of people. The complaints involve scammers posing as federal and local officials, as well as hospital staff, clinic workers and healthcare providers.
“People are pretending to be someone you can trust in order to get money or information,” she said, adding that victims have reported being asked to provide sensitive information like social security numbers, medical information and driver’s license numbers.
On its website, the County of Merced reported that scammers posing as clinic workers contacted Merced residents and offered them COVID-19 vaccines for an upfront $100.00 fee. After the money was paid, the victims were referred to a vaccine site where they did not have appointments.
Prepaid schemes have also appeared in Ventura County, and in Skagit County, WA., local news outlets GoSkagit.com and KGMI.com have reported that scammers claiming to be Skagit County representatives called residents and offered them vaccine appointments and then asked for personal information such as a mother’s maiden name or social security numbers to confirm the appointment.
“The general message people are hearing [about vaccines] is scarcity and the logistical hurdle of delivery, and that feeds into this confusion and makes people pay attention when they get a call,” explained Hobbs.
The FTC website offers tips on how to recognize a vaccine scam. First, you should never pay for a vaccine and anyone asking for money, whether to get you an appointment, put you on a list or reserve a spot in line, is a scammer. Other signs of a scam include:
• Advertisements to buy the vaccine. You can’t buy it anywhere, it’s only available at federal- and state-approved locations.
• Requests for personal, financial, or health information. No one from a vaccine distribution site, healthcare provider’s office, pharmacy, or your insurance company or Medicare will ask for personal information or your Social Security, credit card, driver’s license or bank account number to sign you up to get the vaccine.
• Unexpected or unusual texts and emails containing links about the COVID vaccine. Do not click on links or open attachments from sources you don’t recognize as you could download dangerous malware onto your device.
“Our advice to people is that you should contact a trusted source, so you’ll be checking with state and local health departments to learn when and how to get the vaccine and you can also talk to your healthcare providers directly,” Hobbs said.
Hobbs also encouraged people to sign up for FTC consumer alerts for the latest information on a variety of consumer issues, including COVID-related scams, and noted that if you have been scammed, it’s important to contact authorities right away.
“Getting money back from scammers is a challenge because scammers ask people to use certain payments and these methods have certain characteristics: quick, anonymous, difficult to reverse,” she explained.
One popular method involves instructing victims to buy gift cards and then asking them for the numbers on the back. Scammers also ask for payments via cash-reload cards and money transfers such as Western Union and MoneyGram.
“They choose these methods because they’re like cash – once the money is gone, it’s gone. That’s why it’s important to act quickly. It’s the only way to increase your chances of getting your money back.”
Reporting scams to the FTC also helps the FTC and law enforcement prevent future fraud, Hobbs noted.
“When victims report scams, the information goes into a database that our 3000 law enforcement partners read too,” she explained. “The information helps the agency spot trends, alert communities about potential scams, and informs the FTC’s education, messaging and policy priorities.”
“We’ve redesigned our report intake system to be really easy, and we also have a version of the site in Spanish,” which, Hobbs noted, is important for many communities served by EMS. “We want to hear from these communities, we really want outreach to them and part of the way to do that is through the reports they file.”
People can file anonymously, she said, adding that the FTC does not ask or care about immigration status. “There is no required information [to file a report], people can tell us as little or as much as they like,” she said.
For more information on how to avoid scams, or what to do if you have been a victim of fraud, please visit FTC.gov or click on the links below.
• What to do if you have been scammed: https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/what-do-if-you-were-scammed
• Three ways to avoid COVID-19 vaccine scams: https://www.ftc.gov/system/files/attachments/coronavirus-advice-consumers/three_ways_to_avoid_covid-19_vaccine_scams_508_2.pdf
• Information on COVID-related topics for consumers: ftc.gov/coronavirus
• Report fraud, scams and bad business practices, and get actionable Next Steps to help you recover: ReportFraud.ftc.gov
• Report identity theft: www.identitytheft.gov
For information on how to get the COVID-19 vaccine, please speak with your healthcare provider or pharmacist, or contact your state and local health department.
• Contact your local health department: https://www.naccho.org/membership/lhd-directory
• Contact your state health department: https://www.cdc.gov/publichealthgateway/healthdirectories/healthdepartments.html