We’re willing to bet you’re probably not too familiar with the term “contact tracing.”
If you aren’t, that’s okay. It’s not some new lingo in digital scam world—in fact, it’s a legitimate practice and it has nothing to do with phone and internet fraud. We actually just learned about it, ourselves.
Contact tracing is a tactic used by healthcare workers to track and limit the spread of dangerous diseases. It’s been one of our most tried-and-true strategies for containing epidemics. Before we had other advanced medical tests and techniques, doctors and medical professionals used contact tracing to identify potential carriers of deadly illnesses and isolate them to prevent further infection. It’s actually a tool we’ve been using for centuries.
Once an illness has presented in a local area, contact tracers will interview the afflicted person to determine how many people they’ve been around during the time that they’ve been infected. When the tracers identify those who have a high likelihood of exposure, they’ll reach out to those individuals with instructions on how to seek treatment or isolate.
From there, contact tracers will repeat the process, mapping out a web of exposed people. This allows the area’s medical system to anticipate how serious an epidemic might be and work quickly to make sure the infection doesn’t spread farther than those exposed initially. Contact tracers are basically the detectives of the medical field.
Right now, healthcare workers are using the same tactics to contain those who have come into direct contact with COVID-19 patients. Until we have a vaccine, identifying and isolating Coronavirus carriers is all we can do to stop the infection from exploding.
To do this, healthcare workers will often reach out directly to those who have been named as potential carriers. Typically, this will be done by phone. The call might go something like, “hi, I’m So-and-So from Your City’s health department, and we have reason to believe you’ve been exposed to COVID-19.” During the course of the call, the healthcare worker will probably need to ask you some questions to verify your identity and give you medical instructions.
So why are we explaining a perfectly legitimate healthcare practice on a blog about scammers?
Well, after that last paragraph, you’ve probably guessed what the problem is, here.
The problem is scammers know about contact tracing and how medical professionals do it. They know that during a global pandemic it’s extremely plausible that any one of us could receive a call from the health department. And they also know that people who are terrified of contracting the virus will be quick to answer questions—personal questions—in order to get tested and treated.
Sadly, a very necessary healthcare strategy has now become the perfect setup for identity thieves and financial predators.
Local news stations from coast-to-coast are airing warnings to residents as this scam is popping up all over. The Federal Trade Commission and Better Business Bureau have each issued official statements regarding bogus contact tracing calls and text messages.
This is a tough situation. We need to cooperate with our health departments so we can get to the end of this incredibly long, incredibly awful book and slam it shut. But how are we to know if the call we might receive is legitimate? Anyone can say they’re a contact tracer over the phone.
The first way to identify a fake caller is to ask yourself what a legitimate healthcare professional WOULDN’T do:
- They’re NOT going to text you to tell you might have COVID-19. Can you imagine someone texting you to tell you that you’ve been exposed to a deadly virus? That would be like a cop texting you to tell you that your Social Security number has been suspended (okay, that one does happen, but it’s also a scam). A doctor or healthcare worker is definitely not going to break serious medical news to you by sliding casually into your text message inbox. That’s just absurd.
- They’re NOT going ask you for your credit card details. Receiving a contact tracing call doesn’t cost anything and they don’t need your bank information to verify who you are. The point of the call is to tell someone they’ve been exposed and ask them to get tested and quarantine—not to get someone to pay for any kind of service. There is absolutely no reason they would ask for financial data.
- They’re NOT going to ask about your Social Security or Medicare information. Again, this call has absolutely zero to do with your income, finances, or medical coverage. All of that is completely impertinent to the conversation.
- They’re NOT going to ask you ANY details about your personal life EXCEPT those that involve how many people you’ve been around in a certain time frame, who they are, and what symptoms you may or may not be experiencing. That’s it. That’s all they care about.
Any alleged “contact tracer” doing any of these things (contacting you through unprofessional means, asking for bank information, asking for Social Security or Medicare information, and asking you for private personal details unrelated to the topic at hand) is a scammer. A contact tracing scammer will inevitably do one if not all of these things. That’s how they make their money.
But, a contact tracer DOES have to ask you some questions. They WILL ask for your name, it’s possible they could want you to verify your location, and they’ll assuredly ask for very light contact information for those you may have exposed. Especially with regards to handing out the names and numbers of people you know, you may not feel comfortable even doing that without some kind of reassurance.
Not only is that understandable, it’s entirely expected. Legitimate healthcare workers know we deal with scam calls every day. They know the wise will be uncomfortable sharing any information with an unknown caller.
That’s why it’s important to know it’s okay to refuse to give information before you have reasonable proof the caller is who they say they are. The health department gets it and they’ll respect your reserve.
They are able to send you a photograph of their identification badge if you ask. And they’ll also have no problem with you saying that you’d like to end the call, verify their organization’s phone number independently, and call back to request to speak with them. This is a very common and recommended way to verify the legitimacy of any caller claiming to be from a recognizable business or organization.
If the caller fights that request, pressures you to continue the call or answer questions, or insists that you call a number they provide you, it’s a good indication the caller is a fraud. Scammers are known to get very aggressive and threatening on calls when the victim isn’t cooperative.
Healthcare workers have no reason to pressure or scare you on the phone—in fact, it’s not legally required that you answer any of a contact tracer’s questions. Although, you definitely should. Providing information to contact tracers benefits all of us.
Also, keep in mind these scammers are like many others in that they’re spoofing the actual phone numbers of local health departments. Don’t solely rely on the validity of the number showing up in your caller ID to verify the caller. That number may be faked, too.
And DEFINITELY don’t click any links you might get sent in emails or text messages. Those will most likely lead to phishing sites or malware.
Like most of us, you probably won’t ever get chased down by a contact tracer. But, with Coronavirus showing no signs of stopping anytime soon, it’s always a possibility.
If you do end up receiving a call like this, just make sure you follow these rules and you’ll get all the information you need—without falling for someone’s gross phone scam.