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The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, FBI, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration are all issuing warnings to consumers about the increasing risks of COVID-related scams. In fact, the FTC reported that consumers lost over $17 million in 2021 due to health care fraud. As with all other forms of identity fraud, medical identity thieves are looking to access your personal information, and they’re using the cover of COVID-19 assistance to get it.
In last month’s blog, we warned against unemployment benefits fraud, but fraudsters may also attempt to steal your medical account numbers, insurance ID, or passwords to commit health care fraud/medical identity theft. These scammers will often use your insurance benefits as their own (seeking medical care, getting prescription drugs, or buying medical devices), or they may attempt to steal your personal information or hard-earned money. In either case, the consequences can be dire.
So, what tactics are they using and how can you protect yourself from being scammed?
Common COVID-19 Scams
Knowledge is the best defense against potential fraudsters. Here are four of the most common COVID-19 scams to look out for.
- Charging for the COVID-19 Vaccine: The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has confirmed that free COVID-19 vaccinations are available to all who are living in the U.S. Furthermore, vaccination providers are not permitted to charge for the vaccine, charge the patient directly for any administration fees, copays, or coinsurance, or charge an office visit or other fee to the recipient if the only service provided is a COVID-19 vaccination. Thus, if the representative you’re speaking with asks for payment, they’re likely looking to get your credit card or medicare information — it’s almost certainly a scam.
- Alleged Contact Tracers: According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human services, many scammers will reach out by phone, email, or text posing as COVID-19 contact tracers — those tasked with identifying persons who may have come into contact with a COVID-19 infected individual. A legitimate contact tracer will never ask for your Medicare number or financial information. If they do, end communication immediately.
- Fraudulent Antibody Tests: As early as June 2020, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported that scammers had begun marketing fraudulent COVID-19 antibody tests. An antibody test is meant to confirm whether the recipient has antibodies from a previous infection or from vaccination for the COVID-19 virus (which could provide potential protection from contracting it again in the future). The FBI stated that red flags for this kind of scam include:
- Claims of FDA approval for antibody testing that cannot be verified
- Advertisements for antibody testing from unknown sources (most often through social media platforms, email, telephone calls, or online)
- Marketers providing payment for undergoing testing
How You Can Protect Yourself
- Stay Calm and Take Your Time: A common tactic for fraudsters is to pressure you into acting quickly. If someone calls, texts, or emails you claiming to be from the FDA, CDC, or your insurance provider, you are not obligated to respond immediately. You can wait until after you’ve reached out to the organization directly to confirm that the message is legitimate.
- Be Wary of Unexpected Solicitations: Scammers will almost always reach out proactively, meaning that they will be the first to initiate contact with you by email, text, phone, or a door-to-door visit. Be wary of any unprompted messages you receive about free COVID-19 testing or treatment, as they may be fraudulent. As an extra precaution, you should always schedule vaccination or testing appointments directly with your healthcare provider, county health services, or pharmacy.
- Run an Internet Search: When in doubt, you can do an internet search on the organization name with the keyword “scam” or “fraud” to see if anyone else reported being scammed using the same tactics. While this research alone may not identify the scam, it does provide an added layer of protection between you and potential fraudsters.
- Verify Information Using Reliable Sources: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, FBI, CDC, and FDA have press releases available through their official websites with up-to-date information on COVID-19 protocol and services. When in doubt, rely on information from federal government websites (whose addresses will typically end in .gov or .mil).
What Is Available to You
With so many fraudsters exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be hesitant to reach out for any medical or financial assistance out of fear of being scammed. Fortunately, there are plenty of vetted organizations that offer real assistance.
- Many pharmacies offer free or low-cost COVID-19 tests, whether or not you have medical insurance. To evade potential scammers, schedule your test through the pharmacy’s website or call the pharmacy directly.
- The CDC has confirmed that free COVID-19 vaccinations are available to all who are living in the U.S., regardless of immigration status. You can schedule your vaccination through your doctor or pharmacy’s website, or you can call directly to make an appointment.
- U.S. residents can order one set of 4 free at-home COVID-19 tests from the United States Postal Service (USPS) per household. Click here for more information.
If you believe you have been the victim of a COVID-19 fraud, immediately report it to National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline at (866) 720-5721, or the FBI at (800) CALL-FBI, as well as the Department of Health and Human Services at (800) HHS-TIPS.
Additionally, AAA Identity Champion offers services that can help you avoid the damage done by potential fraudsters, including financial account takeover monitoring and identity theft insurance. Click here for more information about our plans.