COVID-19 scams on the rise, by Nina Mohan

3/18/2021, 6 p.m.
Scammers are taking advantage of the confusion surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine distribution and using it as an opportunity to prey ...

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 of the Federal Trade Commission’s Division of Consumer & Business Education.

“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.

Ms. 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 health care providers.

“People are pretending to be someone you can trust in order to get money or information,” she said. Victims have reported being asked to provide sensitive information including Social Security numbers, medical information and driver’s license numbers.

The FTC website offers tips on how to recognize a vaccine scam. First, you should never pay for a vaccine. 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, health care 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-19 vaccine. Do not click on links or open attachments from sources you don’t recognize because 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 health care providers directly,” Ms. Hobbs said.

She also encouraged people to sign up for FTC consumer alerts for the latest information on a variety of consumer issues, including COVID-related scams. She 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,” Ms. Hobbs said.

Reporting scams to the FTC also helps the FTC and law enforcement officials to prevent future fraud, she noted.

“When victims report scams, the information goes into a database that our 3,000 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.”

For more information on how to avoid scams, or what to do if you have been a victim of fraud, please visit FTC.gov.

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- 19-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 local health department.

The writer is part of the 2020 class of the CAPE New Writers Fellowship and a social media influencer.