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Warning: COVID-19 Vaccine Scams Are Clever and Tenacious

How to spot them and how to report them

By Kathleen Doheny

The caller ID said "Advanced Medical Group." Even though the Tennessee woman who got the call wasn't a patient of that group, she answered. The caller said she was eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, but needed a COVID-19 test first. That's when the trouble began.

COVID-19 vaccine given to patient
Occupational health nurse Maureen Finnegan places a band-aid on immunologist and allergist Dr. Michael Welch, after administering him with a dose of the Moderna coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego, California, U.S., December 22, 2020.   |  Credit: REUTERS/Bing Guan via PBS NewsHour

"I told him I don't drive, and that I had no way to get a test,'' the woman recalled. "He told me the test was free if I was on Medicare." So, she inadvisedly gave him her Medicare number, name and address. "He said he was going to come out to the house to administer the test and vaccine," she said.

COVID-19 is a scammer's dream, in many ways.

Of course, once armed with her personal information, the scammer never showed.

COVID-19 vaccine scams like this are skyrocketing, according to the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

As the demand for COVID-19 vaccines continues to far outstrip supply, fraudsters are out in full force, using phone calls, email and texts to dupe people out of their money, personal information or both.

When the COVID-19 Vaccine Scams Started and Why

"We noticed an uptick [in reports] around mid-December, right when the government and health officials started saying 'We have a vaccine,''' says Sandra Guile, a BBB spokesperson. "And we said, 'Uh oh.'''

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has launched Operation Stolen Promise 2.0, aimed at identifying and preventing the sale, production and distribution of unauthorized or unapproved COVID-19 products and drugs. As of late 2020, ICE had seized more than $26 million in illegal proceeds and made 170 arrests, along with checking out more than 69,000 COVID-19 domain names.

COVID-19 is a scammer's dream, in many ways, because the coronavirus "is something new, this is scary," says Guile.

Facebook Messenger has popped up as a popular COVID-19 vaccine scam avenue. Crooks can make a message look like it's from a friend, sometimes by setting up a duplicate page for the actual friend or a page with a name almost identical to the real friend, and then sending the messages before the new account is discovered as a fake.

Some ploys even sound at least a little believable, such as the random text message the Better Business Bureau heard about. It said: "We want you to be part of our vaccine opinion panel."

Scammers go on social media sites and use what Hancock calls ''social proof."

Scammers thrive when there is uncertainty, says Jeff Hancock, a communication professor and founding director of the Stanford University Social Media Lab, who researches how people use technology to deceive. And uncertainty has been a major feature of COVID-19, with facts quickly changing about vaccine supplies, effectiveness and virus variants.

People are also understandably worried about their health, making them even easier targets for vaccine scams.

"When people are stressed about those kind of core needs, they will do things [they normally would not do]," Hancock says.

Suppose a scammer called a person offering a discount on a luxury car, he says. If they weren't into cars, they could easily hang up. But if the person getting the call is extremely anxious about getting the COVID-19 vaccine, that need might block out the skepticism.

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"People who are desperate and want to get the vaccine are going to be a little more susceptible to these bogus offers," notes Randall Hutchinson, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of the Mid-South in Memphis, who has received several reports of vaccine scams.

Complicating things: every state is rolling out the vaccines differently, with no universal approach. A common reaction, Guile says, is: "Who do I believe and who do I not believe?''

Common COVID-19 Vaccine Scams

Among the COVID-19 vaccine scams officials are hearing about:          

  • A text message that looks like it’s from a legitimate public health source. It might say: “This is an opportunity for you to get your COVID-19 vaccination,” then telling you to click a link to apply. The link sends you to a site requiring you to fill out personal information, including your date of birth, and to upload your driver’s license.
  • A caller identifying himself as “Agent Johnson with the Vaccination Distribution Committee.” Then the scammer says he’s offering the vaccine early.
  • Scammers go on social media sites and use what Hancock calls ‘’social proof.” For instance, one told a woman on Facebook that her friend had paid to get a vaccine early and she should, too. The intended victim might understandably say, “I trust this, my friend also used it,’’ Hancock says.
  • An invitation to pay to either get your name on a vaccine appointment list or get early access for the shots. In reality, you can’t legally do that.
  • Offers to buy the vaccine and have it shipped to you. That’s not allowed.

Even with the patchwork approach to the COVID-19 vaccines, there are a few simple ways to get accurate information.

Vetting the Legitimate Sources and Reporting Scams

The FTC advises starting with your state or local health department — online or by telephone — to find out how, when and where to get the COVID-19 vaccine where you live.

You could also ask your health insurance plan or doctor's office for information.

There are a few places to report COVID-19 vaccine scams.

You can let the FTC know by filling out a fraud report form on its site.

You can also email suspected scam information to the U.S. Department of Health Services at [email protected].

You can send a fill out a scam report on the BBB's Scam Tracker site.

And you can file a complaint with your state attorney general through the consumer website of the National Association of Attorneys General.

Forgive Yourself

Don't beat yourself up if you have fallen for a COVID-19 vaccine scam, or almost fallen. "We hear, 'I feel like such a fool,''' Guile says.

But Guile tells people not to blame themselves, reminding them that, "scammers have perfected their craft to make themselves sound very convincing."

Stressing over the scam isn't good for your immune system, either. And the stronger your immune system when you do get the vaccine, the better.

Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist who writes about health and lifestyle topics. Read More
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