The rollout of COVID vaccines offers rich opportunities for scammers: There’s not yet enough supply for everyone who wants a shot. Eligibility rules and sign-up procedures vary by location and change frequently. Everyone is tired of pandemic restrictions and desperate to hear — and believe — that they can get that coveted jab sooner.
It can be hard to know if a call, text or email is the result of signing up for a waitlist or because a scammer sees you as a potential target.
It’s confusing, so know the warning signs
People are confused for a reason:
Something that seemed unlikely — scheduling a vaccine through Eventbrite — was legitimate in some Florida counties but a scam in others.
After consumers were warned not to post photos of vaccine cards on social media, some people in Cook County, Illinois, got texts asking them to send back a photo of their vaccine card or risk having their second vaccine canceled. That was legitimate.
Consumers had been told that no one was going to come door to door with vaccines, but now that happens in some places.
There have been copycat websites, almost identical to the real ones, collecting information and charging fees.
Despite all that, there are a few key signals a vaccine offer is not legit, Federal Trade Commission spokesperson Colleen Tressler says. Among them:
Requesting money to sign you up for an appointment or get you earlier access.
Asking for credit card or bank account information.
Offering to send a vaccine directly to your home.
Offering access to a vaccine through an unconventional source, such as a dating website.
Scammers may be after your money or your identification information. Your birthdate, address, and insurance or Medicare number can be extremely valuable to an identity thief. Be aware that scammers are endlessly creative and resourceful. As news evolves and consumers get wise to scams, they switch to new tactics.
Amy Nofziger, director of victim support for the AARP Fraud Watch Network, believes the next big source of misinformation about vaccines is likely to be social media. Younger people, who have largely remained ineligible for the vaccine, tend to congregate and exchange information there.
How to stay safe when seeking a vaccine
The days of a vaccine appointment feeling like winning the lottery are numbered; more venues and appointments will open up as supplies increase.
Nofziger advises keeping up with phases of eligibility in your area through trusted sources, such as your doctor’s office, health department, hospital or pharmacy. If, after refreshing a trusted site numerous times, you finally get a calendar with appointments, you’re almost certainly safe. Feel free to type in the information requested.
Be careful about responding to incoming messages. Scammers can manipulate caller ID to make it look like the call is coming from a health department or drugstore. Similarly, emails and texts that seem to come from, say, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Department of Health and Human Services, can appear to be genuine. It’s risky to respond to unsolicited contacts and especially to open a link in a text or email — those may contain malware.
If you receive a notification from your state, local drugstore or some other place you've registered, it’s wise to verify it before responding. Look up the email address or phone number on the official site and initiate contact yourself. In most cases, a call or email should be giving you information rather than requesting it, Tressler says.
At the vaccine site, you'll be asked for identification and perhaps insurance information, but vaccines are administered regardless of insurance coverage. Some states also have forms that request Social Security numbers. Those aren't needed for vaccines, and you shouldn't be denied a vaccine for leaving that part blank. If you're challenged about leaving it blank, you can politely ask why the number is needed and how it will be protected.
But keep worries about possible scams and identity theft in perspective, Nofziger says. It’s important to get the vaccine. “If you are a victim of identity theft, I can help you. But if you get COVID and pass away, I can’t.”
This is the first in a series of articles about how to recognize and avoid scams so you can protect yourself and your money from fraudsters. If you have suggestions for future topics, please contact [email protected]