Do NOT post selfies with your vaccination card!

No matter what age you are, almost everyone in this country loves a good selfie.  Especially when we’re celebrating a major event or when it’s helping to advance a cause.

Being one of the first to get in line for a COVID-19 vaccination fits both of those bills.  Not only is getting your shot the beginning of the end (HOPEFULLY!) of this quarantine nightmare, but as one of the first members of the public to get it, you might want to show your friends and family there’s nothing to fear.

A developing trend among people first in line for the shot is taking a celebratory picture holding their vaccine certification card.  I’ve seen this trend firsthand on my own social media timeline.

DON’T DO THIS.

And because I’ve already seen this dozens of times personally, I’d like to send out this important public service announcement:

DO NOT POST PHOTOS OF YOUR VACCINATION CARD ON SOCIAL MEDIA.

Seriously.  Please, please, PLEASE, don’t do this. And if you already have, pull that image down as soon as you possibly can.

Those vaccination cards are an open invitation to would-be scammers who may only need the pieces of your personal information on that card to steal your identity OR who are looking for people who have gotten the first injection to realize their scam.

For example: let’s pretend I’m a scammer and my strategy is to get those who have received their first shot to pay me for access to their second one.  Maybe I’ll call those who have received their first shot pretending to be a state healthcare employee to say they’ll have to put down a deposit on their second shot or pay for their place in line.

The best way for me to find potential victims right now is to simply scroll through vaccine hashtags and look for anyone who has posted a photo holding that vaccination card.

Not only does simply posting that photo make it easy for me to find you, but I also have your full legal name, your birth date, and details about what vaccine you got and who administered it. 

Those details might not seem that critical to your personal security, but they’re incredibly useful to me. 

I can use all those details to convince you over the phone that I’m a healthcare worker with intimate knowledge of your vaccination records.  While you’re talking to me on the phone or through email, you might not immediately remember you posted those details publicly where anyone could find them.  I’d have just enough correct information about your vaccine experience to look very legitimate to you.

Once I have your trust, it’s easy for me to ask you to give me your financial information to arrange payment for your second injection.  I could even ask you for even more critical personal information to “make sure you got the correct shot at the right time.”  Then, I could steal your entire identity.

While posting that card may not provide ALL the details someone would need to seriously jeopardize your finances, it does create a very good opportunity for a skilled social engineer. 

Social engineering is the most common way scammers slurp information out of victims: it’s a strategy where all someone needs is charisma and a scarily short amount of research to convince you he knows you, he can be trusted, and prod you into giving him the information he wants.  These types of scammers flourish on the seemingly innocuous things we post on Facebook and Twitter.

And as for the information that is given on those vaccination cards, you might be surprised to know scammers can use your birth date to figure out MOST of your Social Security number digits if they know where you were born–which they might if you’ve posted where you’re from on your social media profiles or if you were affected by any of the major data breaches of the past several years (most Americans were).

So on top of not posting imagines of that card on social media, you should definitely also consider removing any details related to your birth date and birth location as further protection from all kinds of scammers.

While I haven’t seen any reports of any specific victims of this potential scam, the Federal Trade Commission and Better Business Bureau are pre-emptively raising the red flags as this social media trend gains steam:

As seniors in most states are becoming eligible for their first vaccination, I ask you to be very careful with this trend and with your personal information.  The COVID scammers have been out there since the very beginning of this pandemic and they’re always looking for new ways to bait victims while this situation is evolving.  Since seniors are the first general members of the public to get access to the vaccine, seniors are specifically the ones being targeted at this time.

So keep your personal information close—even if it doesn’t seem all that personal—and try to find much less public ways to celebrate your newly vaccinated status. 

Don’t get me wrong: it’s DEFINITELY a reason to celebrate.  But I want YOU to be the one celebrating—NOT the person who may have just used your good news to destroy your credit.

Stay safe out there, guys!

Vaccine scams target seniors as states enter phase 1B

Today, most U.S. states have opened eligibility to lower priority groups within Phase 1 COVID-19 vaccinations. 

With some alterations, states are largely following guidelines set forth by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), a team of experts within the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).  In the ACIP’s recommended vaccination strategy, Phase 1 is comprised of healthcare personnel, essential workers, seniors, and those with the highest need for the vaccine.  These groups are both the most at-risk for exposure and the most likely to transmit the virus to the larger public.

The first people to receive the vaccine were doctors, nurses, and other essential hospital and clinic employees.  In the ACIP guidelines, this group is 1A.

With states hustling unbelievably fast to get this shot into as many arms as possible, more than half of the U.S. is now working through the 1B and even the 1C groups. These groups primarily consist of seniors over 75 years of age—though depending on how your state may have deviated from APIC guidelines, these groups may include seniors over 70, 65, or younger if they have a high-risk medical condition.

If you are over 65 years of age, I encourage you to start keeping a regular eye on your state’s website.  This will be where you can see if you’re eligible and we’re you can locate the necessary information to schedule your vaccination appointment if eligible.

While we have no idea what vaccine administration will look like once it’s rolled out to the general public (the goal is to make it very similar to getting a flu shot at your local pharmacy), we know right now it’s a matter of checking for your eligibility and getting yourself an appointment.  Vaccine supplies are limited, so you’ll need to schedule a time to get your poke.

The important thing to understand here is if you’re eligible right now, you’ll have to rely on yourself to get that information AND make the appointment to get the vaccine.  The average retiree quarantining at home will likely NOT be contacted by any local agency to alert them of their eligibility or the process to make an appointment. 

Don’t expect for anyone to reach out to you personally to let you know it’s your turn.

The first reason I bring this up is because if you haven’t checked out your state’s health department website, you should do so.  Right now, in fact.  There’s a possibility you are now able to get your vaccine.

The second reason I’m bringing this up is because don’t expect for anyone to reach out to you personally to let you know it’s your turn.

Seniors are receiving calls, texts, and emails from various agencies inviting them to the COVID-19 Vaccine Party every single day.

The price of admission to that party is anything from your bank or credit card information (to pay for the shot, naturally) to your Medicare information (to verify your identity and/or to make sure the cost of your shot is covered).

Guys, the COVID-19 vaccine is free.

The federal government has used YOUR tax dollars to purchase this vaccine and send it all over the country.  There is no charge to administer the shot because we already paid for it.  And because it’s a matter of public health that EVERYONE gets this shot regardless of their ability to pay or their insurance status. 

The vaccine is free.  F-R-E-E.

So, you probably see what I’m getting at here.

The likelihood someone will contact you via any means to tell you they checked for your eligibility specifically—in an ENDLESS OCEAN of people waiting for this shot—is slim to none. 

But the dead giveaway these calls and emails are scams is the asking for financial or insurance information. NOBODY is paying for this vaccine.  This isn’t a profit-making situation.  This is a global health crisis situation

The shot is gratis because it must be in order to create herd immunity.  While we don’t know for sure how high a vaccination percentage is needed to achieve that immunity with this specific virus, we do know that number gets as high as 95% with other contagious illnesses, like measles.  That means 95% of a population needs to get vaccinated against measles to effectively ensure the remaining 5% won’t get measles.

But because the triage for getting a limited vaccine to every single person in the U.S. is complicated, to say the least, a lot of people have little to no idea how to get it, if they can get it, and how they’ll know it’s time to get it.  It is extremely hard to get that kind of information out to every single person, especially when that information varies from state to state and the situation is constantly evolving.  A lot of people who can get vaccinated will probably be left in the dark.

Scammers are already exploiting that information gap to the fullest extent.

Whether it’s the shot itself, a fee for administering the shot, or a fee for scheduling your appointment, we can’t stress this enough: getting the COVID-19 vaccine is free.  Anyone—no matter WHO they claim to be with or contacting you on behalf of—who tells you there’s any kind of payment involved in the vaccination process is 100% trying to scam you.  PLEASE report anyone who contacts you saying this.

Additionally, state health officials are reiterating they would NEVER ask someone they called for sensitive personal information over the phone.

In the event someone would call you to let you know you’re eligible for the vaccine—and that is already highly unlikely—no legitimate caller is going to play 20 Questions with you about your name, birth date, address, Social Security number, or any other information that can be used to steal your identity.  It would simply be a call and an attempt to schedule an appointment.  That’s it.

In time, these scammers will be putting a target on every head in this country, but at this time, only seniors and essential workers are eligible.  This means if you’re a senior, scammers are going to be looking for YOU, specifically.  Until this vaccine opens up to lower priority groups, these scams will disproportionately affect retirees as scammers look for ways to get in contact with as many people within our current phase as possible.

So, be proactive about your vaccination eligibility by locating information on your own.  Don’t wait for anyone to contact you.  Head over to your state or county’s website or contact your local health department to get the information you need.  Any changes to eligibility or access will be posted there first.

HHS warns the public NOT to respond to COVID vaccine scams

After a year I think we all are looking forward to forgetting, Santa has swooped in at the 11th hour to deliver us the gift that’s at the top of all of our Christmas lists: a COVID-19 vaccine.

Of course, in this festive metaphor “Santa” is all the people in the medical research field who have worked day and night to develop an injection that will end this complete and utter nightmare—and did so with a novel virus at neck-breaking speed. In this situation, I have to give credit where credit is really due. Sorry, St. Nick.

One vaccine has already been approved for use in the United States, and five others approved in different parts of the world. Behind those are several more vaccines nearing completion on trial phases.

Hopefully very soon we can return to some semblance of normalcy around here. Personally, I can’t wait to get out there and see how bizarre my loved ones have gotten since I last saw them. At least, I hope they’ve gotten bizarre. I don’t want to be the only weird one at the reunion.

But for right now—and presumably into the next several months—vaccine quantities are extremely limited. They’re rightfully being reserved for those who most need them, primarily the healthcare workers risking exposure every single day. This group also includes workers in long-term care facilities where COVID has a particularly strong stranglehold.

After that, it is expected the second priority group in most states will be people over 65 years of age. This is especially critical because, aside from seniors being vulnerable in general, it will cut off the virus’ favorite breeding ground: nursing homes. Nursing facilities have been the source of many early outbreaks in this country.

Producing, shipping, and administering vaccines to those highest on the priority list is a process certain to take quite a bit of time. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar estimates the general public won’t have access to the vaccine until Spring 2021, so it looks like we’ll have quite a while to wait.

Knowing that, none of us should be expecting to receive any kind of communication telling us to pull up at the COVID Shot Store any time soon. Even seniors who will be among the first to receive the vaccine shouldn’t expect it—we’ve only just started to deliver doses to frontline health workers.

With thousands of healthcare workers waiting on the first vaccines to arrive, there is absolutely NO chance of getting any kind of early access to the shot. Zero. Zilch. Not possible. No way, and no how. There are very few doses even being made yet, and every last one of them is spoken for.

But if we know ANYTHING about scammers, we know they are shameless opportunists. Judging by how they reacted to the first available COVID tests, the Department of Health and Human Services is getting out in front of the vultures before they really start circling.

The Office of the Inspector General at HHS is already issuing warnings about any communication the public might receive—be it email, phone call, or text—about offers and access related to the COVID vaccine.

To paint a picture of just how fast scammers can mobilize campaigns, the Food and Drug Administration authorized use of the first COVID vaccine six days ago. Just three days later, we got the first reports about vaccine-related scams.

Per usual, scammers are making these calls and emails sound and look as if they’re coming from genuine government and health institutions, like the FDA, the CDC, Medicare, or local physicians and pharmacies. There may be very little in the way of red flags to let you know the communication is from an imposter: emails will spoof email addresses and use legitimate branding materials, and calls may used spoofed phone numbers that on a cursory look-up seem to be coming from a legitimate place.

But as we’ve explored in the past on this blog, it is nothing for a scammer to fake a local or legitimate number or throw together a halfway decent facsimile of a recognized and trusted website. This is 101-level stuff for a fraudster.

Normally I’d give some tips about how to recognize these things or maybe a list of things you can do to steer clear (I do LOVE a bulleted list). But telling you how you can avoid having your personal information stolen by these particular scammers is, thankfully, much simpler than that:

You can’t get the vaccine.

There is no vaccine available to the general public.

There won’t be a widely available vaccine until second quarter next year.

That’s really all you need to know. Anyone offering you some kind of super secret VIP access to the shot in the meantime is trying to get something from you. Absolutely NO ONE can get this shot except a select few who really, really need it. That’s it. That’s all. End of.

The day we have enough of the vaccine to distribute it to the public, it will absolutely consume the news cycle. I imagine there will be lines outside every PCP and pharmacy door that would make you think someone was handing out free suitcases of diamonds (or toilet paper, AM I RIGHT?! Hahahaha! Help, someone, please.).

There will be no questions at all when this thing becomes available or if it’s available. We will all know when that time comes. And that time is not any time soon.

So, know that in the coming months these vaccine scams will be everywhere. Scammers will contact people in all the ways they usually do, via any means, and they will be really good at making themselves out to be something that they’re not.

And as it gets colder and darker and the cabin fever starts setting in (if it hasn’t WELL before now), they’re going to use that to tempt victims into thinking they can get this shot that will allow them to get back to life.

Don’t fall for it. It’s going to be a tough winter, but we made it this far. We all just need to keep following the rules for a few more months so we can end this nonsense once and for all.

Study shows Americans are increasingly comfortable sharing health, Social Security, and financial information in the wake of COVID-19

The Advertising Research Foundation recently released results from its third annual Privacy Study, a survey conducted to find out how Americans perceive and treat their personal and private information. Among other things, the survey measures how well Americans understand privacy terminology and concepts, and how willing they are to release different kinds of private data.

This year’s study occurred within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, a unique environment where we’re being asked to share deeply personal information we might not otherwise. Not only are we readily sharing medical information in an effort to slow the virus’ spread, but we’re also engaged in a nationwide discussion about hardship—one that shines a spotlight on our individual finances.

Given the dialog about contact tracing, personal health habits, and economic relief, most of us could have guessed at the results of this year’s survey. Though this has been a gradual trend over the years, the 2020 Privacy Study indicates a sharp uptick in how comfortable people are with sharing all kinds of sensitive personal information.

Some examples of this uptick include the amount of people willing to share medical information (34% in 2020 versus 27% in 2019) and an increase in data-sharing among those who have experienced job loss or wage decreases.

It was also found that despite this increase in sharing, more Americans understand the terms of privacy agreements. For example, the study shows that respondents have a much greater understanding of what “third party” information sharing means. Not only are we sharing more of our personal information than in the past two years, but we are also much more aware of what we are agreeing to when we share that information.

It’s not hard to understand why this trend is occurring. We are being actively encouraged to share medical information to help healthcare professionals fight the virus. And we all have a tendency to volunteer our experience when we talk about economic policy and impactful stimulus measures.

But while this sharing is necessary in many respects, it can also make us susceptible to the dangers of putting too much out there to too many people.

Within the first weeks of COVID making it to our shores, financial predators repainted, refurbished, and reintroduced their scams to suit our pandemic-anxious climate. Instead of impersonating Social Security Administration workers or law enforcement, they now impersonate doctors, nurses, and contact tracers. Instead of offering lottery prizes, they now offer COVID testing and stimulus checks.

The critical takeaway from this study is knowing that we’re living in a world where we are being asked to share more and more—and most of us are doing it.

Unfortunately, the more we put our concerns about our privacy to the side for the greater good, the more we prime ourselves to be okay with it in the future. And that could create a pretty big problem moving forward.

We say all of this just to remind you to stay vigilant about who you tell what. There are so many reasons why putting your experience out there is important—we rely on people telling their stories about illness and financial struggle to advocate for positive change.

But not everyone who asks to hear your story is trying to work for you. Some of them might be actively working against you. And they don’t need very much information about you to do it.

So continue to be mindful and alert when it comes to your personal information. This is both true of direct contact from a potential scammer AND generally sharing your personal details on social media. Ask those who may approach you to share your personal information to verify their identity or purpose, and never, ever feel like you HAVE to trust someone asking for it.

How scam artists are using “contact tracing” to commit financial fraud

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.

Be aware of these growing COVID-19 scams

Last week we talked a little bit about scammers’ quick moves to exploit upcoming Economic Impact Payments. Impersonating government employees representing legitimate federal agencies, scam artists are preying on anxious Americans waiting for financial relief.

But this stimulus scam wasn’t the first COVID-19-related strategy used to rook vulnerable victims. Scammers have seen the opportunities in this disaster since the very start. The seemingly endless amount of angles they can take can make spotting the the fake offers and appeals extremely difficult—especially when so many legitimate organizations and businesses are reaching out to the public, too.

We’re not trying to be funny when we say these scams have gone completely viral. In the same way this illness has run rampant, dominating the global conversation, these scams have taken over in place of the usual phishing and sales scams we see every day. Right now, it’s all about using pandemic fears to drain as many victims as possible. And unfortunately, it’s very lucrative.

As we said, it’s not just the stimulus confusion scammers are using. In fact, it may be that while we’re all on the lookout for IRS, SSA, and Treasury fraudsters, we’re more susceptible to the ones using more subtle or unexpected tactics to separate us from our cash:

Snake Oil Salesmen

Let’s face it: there is no cure for Coronavirus—at least not yet, anyway. And in all likelihood, there will never be one. Most viruses haven’t been and can’t be “cured.”

Viruses are not bacteria, a living organism we can attack with antibiotics and kill. Viruses are tricky. They’re an entity that embeds itself into our cells and uses our normal cell functions against us. The only thing that can “cure” a sickness in this case is our own immune system. We can support our bodies in that fight by vaccinating, using antivirals, and treating the life-threatening symptoms of the illness, but as for “curing” it? We’ve still got a long path ahead.

We say this to shine some light on the “I have the cure!” scammers. Even if it was possible for someone to miraculously produce a true-blue viral cure in a matter of months, it would absolutely swallow the headlines—not just because there was a real cure to COVID-19, but because it would be an extraordinary thing for anyone to develop a drug that zapped any virus in the way scammers claim.

Medical researchers all over the world are working day and night to develop therapies to stop this thing. But the best medical minds in the world have only just initiated human clinical trials on a vaccine. Proving the efficacy and safety of the vaccine may still take well over a year. The day a vaccine proves out, we’ll know about it—and not because some jerk crept into our email inbox to get us to buy it.

The bottom line is this: anyone contacting you claiming to have a cure, vaccine, or treatment for Coronavirus is lying at best. At worst? They may be selling people completely unfounded, unstudied, and baseless snake oil concoctions that could be extremely dangerous. Ignore 100% of these claims and these people.

Fake Virus Testing

Spring has sprung, and with it, all of the sneezing, coughing, itchy eyes, and respiratory woes allergy sufferers endure every year. But this time, it’s different. Is it hay fever? Is it the dreaded Spring cold? Is my asthma being aggravated? Or did I touch my face when I shouldn’t have?

This is a really, really bad time to have pollen sensitivities. People who would ordinarily wave away the sniffles will be coming down with a bad case of the “But What Ifs.” And this isn’t a great time for anyone to be visiting their doctors or hospitals if they aren’t certain they need assistance.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just visit a testing station or order a COVID-19 test kit through the mail? If only for the peace of mind?

It would. That’s why scammers thought of it, too.

Fake testing sites and testing-by-mail scams are popping up all over the country. Investigators in Kentucky are rooting out bogus drive-thru testing sites. In Virginia, phone impostors are directing residents to fraudulent testing facilities. Customs officers in Los Angeles seized a significant amount of counterfeit testing kits at LAX.

These tests are being offered to the public for ludicrous amounts of money and do absolutely nothing to detect the virus. They may even put victims at risk for identity theft should they be asked to pay with a credit card or show identification.

Trust absolutely no COVID-19 test without speaking to your primary care physician first. While there are legitimate drive-thru testing sites in many states, you should always, always, always consult your doctor before taking any kind of medical action. Doing so will ensure you’re taking a legitimate test, and it will keep everyone off of the streets seeking tests they may not need. Do only what your doctor thinks is best.

Protective Gear Scams

The CDC now recommends we all use masks when going into public. More and more people are opting to wear latex gloves to touch cart handles in the grocery store. The demand for protective gear is high, but weeks into our nationwide epidemic there are very few of these items available.

Scammers are taking advantage of this shortage to either price gouge customers or take their money and run. In some cases, scammers are impersonating legitimate medical supply companies to take orders for trusted equipment only to disappear when the payment goes through. If the promised product even arrives, it may be counterfeit.

To make matters worse, these scammers may also be using their bogus online stores to steal customers’ payment and personal information.

To suss out phishing websites, check out our recommendations right here. And if the site you’re looking at is brand new to you, be very wary. When so many retail giants, like Amazon, don’t have any masks available, why would some little retailer you’ve never heard of have an abundance? Be sure to investigate the history of the site and see if you can find any online reviews for it.

Spotting scam sellers from real sellers—especially on sites like Amazon with individual sellers—can be difficult. Our only recommendation here would be to avoid sites like this entirely. Only trust reputable dealers’ websites.

And if a seller is offering masks for exorbitant prices, don’t purchase them. Even if the product is real (and unreasonable pricing is a good indication it’s not), we shouldn’t be buying from carpetbaggers whose practices have had a large hand in the mask shortages we’re seeing now. Many of these sellers bought these materials in bulk for the purpose of reselling at much higher prices once demand was up and supply was down.

The good news is most of us regular people don’t need a surgical quality mask. We SHOULD all be staying home as much as possible. But for essential trips in public, the CDC has recommended cloth protective masks we can all make at home with materials we have on-hand. Don’t risk losing to a scammer—make your mask at home and save your money.

Social Security Suspension

Our buddy, our pal. For several years, the Social Security benefit scam has undoubtedly been the biggest money-maker for scammers, so it’s no surprise they’ve adapted it for the Year of the Coronavirus.

We’ve talked about how this scam works a lot, so we’ll keep this one brief:

This virus situation has absolutely no bearing on whether or not you receive your benefits. And that goes for Medicare, too. Employees from these agencies rarely reach out to people by phone, so you should be suspicious anyway. But if they’re discussing your benefits and coverage in any context relating to Coronavirus? Hang up.

Fake Charities

There are so many selfless people and organizations doing what they can to provide relief during quarantine. Whether it’s a nonprofit or an individual crowd-sourcing donations for those having a hard time getting by right now, these are people genuinely using their fundraising talents for the common good. A lot of people would be desperately in need without them.

But it takes an amateur level of know-how and maybe a couple hours of work to start a peer-to-peer fundraiser or build a website. With a little more skill, you can have professional logos, letterhead, contact forms, and even a functioning phone number. As long as your victims don’t think to investigate the person they’re giving money to, it is disturbingly easy to materialize a charity out of thin air and start raking in cash.

We all want to feel like we’re pulling our weight and doing what we can to help others. Most of us are limited in our capacity to meaningfully help in this situation. We will try to use our wallets to help healthcare workers needing supplies or those in financial trouble due to job loss. And there is nothing wrong with that.

But do be incredibly critical of anyone asking you for money for their COVID-19 fundraisers. Dig up any information you can about their history and nonprofit registration status in your state. And don’t let anyone aggressively pressure you into giving them money on the spot. If you aren’t sure? Don’t give.

Home Buglaries

This is probably the scariest con to come out of the pandemic. It seems like a horror movie setup, but cases have been confirmed in Illinois, Ohio, and Florida: criminals are dressing up like healthcare workers, gaining access to homes, and robbing the occupants.

Thieves, posing as CDC or Red Cross representatives in lab coats and masks, go door-to-door claiming to need to give vital healthcare information. Once inside, these “CDC” workers either burglarize the home by force or use distraction techniques to steal right under the noses of victims.

There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about this one. Don’t let people you don’t know into your home. In no state are legitimate medical professionals going door-to-door to tell anyone anything. This scam has the potential to escalate into a far more dangerous situation than a simple robbery. It doesn’t matter what these people say. If the person on the other side of the peephole looks like they’re trying too hard to look like a doctor? Don’t even open the door.

Right now, Coronavirus scams are everywhere. All we can say is be very mindful of any transaction or communication you have regarding this pandemic. These scams are using all methods of communication and contact and their setups are pretty diverse.

We can’t stress enough how important it is to report any and all interactions you suspect are unscrupulous. We are all very vulnerable to predators in this environment. Every scam reported is a victim who might be saved from a grift or something much worse.

The FTC and FBI are working with the public to handle COVID-19 scammers, but they need us all to make the reports so they can chase these people down.

Be on the lookout for COVID-19 stimulus scammers

At this point we can safely say there’s no limit to the situations these people will exploit to make a buck.

With the announcement and passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Safety Act (CARES) Act, it was only a matter of time before financial predators launched their newest attack on the public: tricking Americans waiting for their rebate checks out of their personal information.

While the CARES Act is a comprehensive stimulus package, the provision of most concern to the American public is that which issues every citizen a direct relief payment. In an effort to bring some measure of security to those affected by lay-offs, furloughs, and closures, the CARES Act directs the Treasury to issue all Americans with a Social Security number a $1,200 payment (the actual amount will vary depending on income and dependents).

In the chaos of this bill’s rapid-speed passage, a dizzying news cycle, and the general confusion of our new normal, a lot of people have no idea when or how these payments will be made. Those who have filed 2018 or 2019 tax returns understand their checks will be automatically issued by the IRS based on their last return.

But what about those who DON’T file tax returns? This group is largely—if not mostly—composed of seniors and retirees. These are people who don’t make enough income in a year to need to file tax returns.

By now we know this group will need to file some kind of abbreviated return for which they will receive a Form 1099 from the IRS. The Social Security Administration and IRS have been directed by the CARES Act to engage in a public outreach campaign to get this information and filing instructions to the general public.

Unfortunately, it takes time for federal agencies to really get public outreach programs going. And in that time scammers have proven yet again they are far faster than the federal government at reaching everyday citizens.

Pivoting from their usual Social Security racket, scammers are now using their tried-and-true SSA impersonation strategies on those waiting for their stimulus checks.

In just a matter of days scammers have already come up with half a dozen ways to use imminent stimulus payments to talk victims out of their identities:

  • Mailing fake stimulus checks (“Please go to X website or call Y number to confirm your identity and that you’ve received your payment.”)
  • Scam calls, social media messages, and emails asking for verification of personal details (“Please verify your identity so we can send you your check.”)
  • Scam calls, social media messages, and emails asking for credit card information (“You will need to pay a small processing fee so we can send you your payment.”)
  • Scam calls, social media messages, and emails asking for your Social Security number (“We will need your SSN so we can deposit your payment.”)

While the method of contact and the reasoning behind the contact will vary, the end goal will be the same in all cases: someone is trying to get your name, address, birth date, credit card information, or Social Security number in order to steal your identity.

This is the exact same scam as the Social Security Administration scam. The person who contacts you will most likely try to fraudulently impersonate an employee or representative of the SSA or IRS. In the case of calls, they may try to spoof a legitimate SSA office number. In the case of direct messages, emails, or mailers, they may use the actual logos and branding materials of the SSA or IRS to make you think the communication is legitimate.

However these scammers attempt to ensnare you in the coming weeks, we recommend that you follow our guidelines in sniffing out any Social Security benefit scammer to protect yourself:

  • Above all, know that these relief payments DO NOT REQUIRE ANY KIND OF PAYMENT ON YOUR PART. This is a service being done by the Treasury to Americans in need. Think about it: what kind of sense does it make to mail financial relief payments to people and ask for payment in order to receive them? It doesn’t. Do not fall for this nonsense.
  • The SSA and the IRS already knows who you are. They have your SSN. They have your name. They have your address. It’s the Social Security Administration for crying out loud—why would the SSA need you to verify your SSN?
  • Even if these agencies would need you to verify certain details, they have said time and time again that they will NOT contact you by phone, email, or direct message to ask for them. As it pertains to the SSA, it will only call you if you have previously scheduled a phone appointment with them. Federal agencies simply DO NOT do business this way—especially when it comes to passing extremely sensitive information back and forth.
  • Scammers rely on the timidity, openness, and trusting nature of their victims to pull these schemes off. No matter how intimidating, convincing, or aggressive these people may get, you never have to fork your information over blind. You have the right to verify who you are talking to before you give anyone your information. If there is any question in your mind whatsoever, hang up or ignore the mailer or digital contact and call the SSA or the IRS to confirm the validity of the contact. Don’t give anyone your bank or Social Security information without contacting these agencies directly.
  • Trust no websites any emails or direct messages may send you to. Trust no phone number a “Social Security representative” may call you from. These are widely and easily faked.

If you receive contact like this over the coming days, we strongly encourage you to help others by doing what you can to put a stop to these vultures.

The Treasury is directing Americans to use the FBI’s online complaint portal to report any communication you receive that you suspect is from a stimulus scammer.

The FTC has also set up a direct link to their scam complaint system for further reporting on COVID-19-related scams (this could also be used to report scams having to do with “miracle” cures and Coronavirus testing or medical equipment—sadly, these are also happening).

Please share these reporting resources with your friends and family. All financial predation is vile, but under our current circumstances, these scams are particularly disgusting. These scammers are taking advantage of those who, by no fault of their own, have fallen on hard times. They are spitting in the faces of hundreds of thousands of people who are sick or mourning the loss of loved ones, and millions more who are terrified they’ll end up in the same situation.

These scammers belong in jail. Report them.

Old scam, new packaging: genetic testing scam offers free medical screening in exchange for your identity

Say what you will, but identity thieves are nothing if not creative.

But behind their ever-evolving scare tactics and too-good-to-be-true giveaways and opportunities hides the exact same scam: convince the victim to hand over their Social Security number and banking information.

The newest iteration of this con is making headlines across the country.  It’s occurring both by phone and in person, with scammers even having the audacity to make their pitches in local seniors centers.

It’s being called the “genetic testing” or “DNA testing” scam. Similar to the medical equipment offers we discussed last year, the genetic testing scam promises seniors Medicare-covered genetic screening to identify serious health risks.  

All you’d have to do is use their 100% free at-home DNA swab kit, package it up, and send it back to the agency along with your Medicare information, your personal information, your Social Security number, and your bank information.

…See where this is going?

The truth is this is nothing but fresh paint on a falling down house.  Preying on seniors and their health concerns, genetic testing scammers dangle the hope of preventing life-threatening illness over their victims’ heads with no intention of doing anything but stealing their identities.

This scam is springing up nationwide.  Seniors report both being contacted by phone and encountering these creeps collecting information in places seniors spend time. 

If you should also run into someone making a “free” genetic testing pitch to Medicare recipients, just follow these simple rules to avoid becoming their next victim:

  • As with all medication, medical equipment, and medical testing offers, you should only be discussing these things with your doctor.  Should you need anything of a medical nature, your trusted physician will be the one to order it or point you in the right direction.  Don’t trust anyone making you any medical offers that you or your doctor haven’t solicited.
  • DO NOT give ANYONE your Social Security number, banking information, or personal information except those that absolutely need it.  Especially if it is solicited by phone or by an unknown person or organization.
  • Protect those around you by reporting these calls and solicitations to the appropriate agency

If you receive one of these calls or are encountered by someone pitching a free genetic test to you, do not engage them.  These people are charismatic and extremely convincing.  Any attempt to argue or confront them could open a door for them to ensnare you in their scam.   Hang up the phone or walk away.  It’s not rude.  It’s not wrong.  You don’t owe any type of courtesy or conversation to someone trying to take advantage of you. 

Senior scams contributing to suicide among older adults

According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide rates among the elderly have increased by over 30% since 1999.

Some of the biggest increases in suicide rates have occurred in the Midwest and Northeast, in states like Kansas, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Vermont and New Hampshire.

While the CDC states there is no definitive cause for these increases, they have identified a pattern of stressors and life events that contribute heavily to many of these cases. Several of these stressors have to do with economic and housing instability, immediate crises, legal trouble, relationship problems, and health challenges.

These are problems that impact everyone, but the implications for seniors are often far greater than with other age groups.  Seniors are extremely vulnerable in all of these areas, and in many cases, they are far less likely to bounce back from a major emotional or financial blow.

These are exactly the types of blows scammers are delivering to seniors each and every day.

The same anxieties the CDC identifies as major factors in the growing amount of self-harm and suicide cases in the United States are the tools scammers use to hook and completely destroy their victims.

They create relationship stress with dating scams.  They create fake family crises with grandparent scams.  They threaten legal action with IRS tax scams.  They promise miracle cures and treatments through medical scams.  And ultimately, they drain the savings of the financially vulnerable and create very real economic hardship for people who do not have the means to replace what was lost.

In the end, the fear, anxiety, and guilt victims feel when they realize what has happened is sometimes too much to bear.  In some cases, the victims of senior scams are being driven to death.

The consequences of senior financial scams in reality are far more serious than stolen savings. When many seniors live in social isolation, struggle with illness and depression, and largely blame themselves for the actions of predators, we’re talking about a problem that is truly life-threatening.

And the problem is far from uniquely American.  Seniors all over the world are falling prey to scam calls and wire transfer scams.  In Japan, several seniors have killed themselves after being victimized by a scammer.

It is important to remember, both as a potential victim or someone who may one day witness someone get taken in by a scammer, that it is NEVER a victim’s fault when someone lies and steals from them. The ONLY one who has to answer for exploitation is the exploiter.

It is not your fault.

While reporting and regaining what was stolen may seem paramount, your first and immediate priority should always be assuring the health of the affected.  Senior scams leave victims feeling embarrassed, alone, unsafe, unstable, and guilty.

If you or someone you love is taken advantage of by a senior scammer, please consider counseling, visiting a primary care physician, or locating a senior support group in your area. Get to know the warning signs of suicide and depression, and take immediate treatment action if you recognize them.

If you are in immediate distress and need emotional support, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org to chat with trained staff who CAN help you.

Brace yourself: popular health scam promises free medical equipment and fraudulently bills your Medicare

It can happen a few different ways: you might be contacted via a phone call, you might receive a notice or postcard in the mail, or you may choose to contact the individual yourself after seeing an ad in your local circular or newspaper.

And the person you end up speaking to won’t always have the exact same story. Sometimes he’ll be a Medicare representative. Sometimes he’ll say he’s an employee of a medical device manufacturer or supplier. He might even tell you he was referred to you directly by your personal physician.

But though the contact method and back story is variable, what’s definitely going to happen when you start going back and forth with this scammer is he’s going to recommend you take him up on an excellent medical equipment offer.

Has your back troubled you recently? Do you have aches in your knees at all? Well, a brand new back or knee brace might be just the thing to improve your stability and ease your pain in these areas.

And since this equipment is 100% covered by Medicare, you won’t have to come out-of-pocket at all if you’re a Medicare beneficiary.

…So are you currently receiving Medicare? Can I have your card number?

The problem with this scam isn’t that your Medicare won’t cover your new back brace–it’s that the “Medicare representative” on the other end of phone isn’t intending on sending it to you.

That’s because once the scammer has the number on your Medicare card and whatever other personal information he might need, he can bill Medicare for your equipment–whether he sends it to you or not.

Often, back brace scammers don’t stop at just billing for a device they never sent.

Not only do they bill Medicare far more than the device’s actual value, but they’ll go on to repeatedly bill Medicare over time for treatments and equipment you never asked for or received.

Medicare scammers can run up tens of thousands of dollars in fraudulent Medicare claims in your name before they’re discovered.

The bottom line is this: when it comes to your medical treatments and therapies, put your trust in your caregivers alone. Only your doctor knows your history and what your needs are as a patient. All of your medical decision-making, including what therapeutic braces or equipment you might need, can and should be done through a trusted medical professional face-to-face.

Keep your Medicare and personal information private at all times. And never respond to ads, calls, mailings, or emails making medical offers or asking for your personal medical information. Direct all concerns and questions you have about your healthcare to your doctor alone.