En español | With the first coronavirus vaccine in the U.S. just authorized, state and federal officials are warning that ruthless criminals will try to capitalize on the historic step to steal people’s money.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a fraud alert on Dec. 3 aimed at Americans eager to get vaccinated against COVID-19: “You will not be asked for money to enhance your ranking for vaccine eligibility.”
The same day as the HHS fraud alert went out, WROC-TV in Rochester, New York, reported that a recorded-scam call offered people a chance to avoid long lines and receive an early dose of the Pfizer vaccine for $79.99.
The two developments happened more than a week before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), on Dec. 11, authorized the vaccine on an emergency-use basis.
Top state officials are also sounding the alarm about the potential for criminal activity. Even before the FDA acted, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody warned about product and distribution scams tied to the vaccine.
Stay on ‘high alert’
“Floridians must remain on high alert,” Moody urged. A confluence of factors — vaccines winning or applying for FDA authorization and consumers anxious for immunity from disease — mean “scammers may exploit the situation to rip off Floridians.”
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Leading up to the FDA’s authorization of the Pfizer vaccine, Michigan officials exhorted the public to stay vigilant about COVID-19 scams related to vaccines, treatments, test kits and clinical trials. Be “extremely wary” of anyone who offers you a vaccine now, said Joneigh Khaldun, M.D., a top official at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
Here are five key points that state and federal officials want the public to understand.
1. Initially, the vaccine will be available in limited quantities, so people should turn to trusted resources — their doctor or local health department — for guidance.
2. People should not buy any kind of coronavirus vaccine or treatment on the internet or from an online pharmacy.
3. Doses of vaccine that were purchased with U.S. taxpayer dollars will be provided to patients at no cost. Providers, though, may charge an administration fee and have that fee reimbursed by private and public insurance companies. There’s also a means of reimbursement for uninsured patients.
4. Consumers should not respond to any solicitations about the vaccine. “Fraudsters are using telemarketing calls, text messages, social media platforms and door-to-door visits to perpetrate COVID-19-related scams,” HHS officials said in the Dec. 3 fraud advisory.
5. People should not give cash or any other form of payment to suspicious callers, nor should they divulge personal, medical or financial information, which criminals can use to fraudulently bill federal health care programs and to commit medical identity theft.
There will be strict protocols for the order in which certain groups of people, such as nursing home residents and health care workers, will be inoculated. Watch for announcements from federal and state governments. For more information, consult online resources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web pages and the FDA’s vaccine web pages
Criminals chase headlines
Cybersecurity expert Mike Stamas learned of the $79.99 Pfizer scam when the Rochester television station interviewed him about it. He told AARP that he’s “not surprised at all” that criminals are out for quick cash during a global health crisis, observing, “Criminals exploit things that are hot in the media as a way to steal.”
Stamas, 42, cofounder of GreyCastle Security in Troy, New York, said the pandemic serves as a reminder to everyone to adhere to good practices with computer devices, passwords and cybersecurity in general. Stamas lives with his father, 83, and always reminds his computer-savvy dad not to click on suspicious emails, respond to unsolicited offers, or interact with a stranger via an email, chat or a website.
“It’s a benefit to have a healthy paranoia,” Stamas said. “And if an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
Officials fear past is prologue
At the HHS Office of Inspector General, the department’s watchdog arm, an official told AARP on Dec. 8 that so far, it had seen “few signs” of coronavirus vaccine fraud. The watchdog issued its alert based on the way scammers have quickly altered their tactics and schemes throughout the pandemic, spokesperson Tesia Williams said. Scams have varied: selling overpriced or nonexistent personal protective equipment and cleaning products; touting fake cures and treatments; setting up phony testing sites for COVID-19; and cheating government COVID-19 relief programs.
“It is incumbent upon us to alert the public of likely schemes and what people can do to protect themselves,” Williams said.
Pfizer, based in New York City, did not respond to questions from AARP about the reported scam call for a $79.99 vaccine. But since May the global drug company has been warning people about COVID-19 scammers, including counterfeiters, “who scheme to make a profit by price gouging, selling dangerous fake medicines or perpetrating scams on unsuspecting customers.”
“During a crisis, scammers are more prevalent than ever,” Pfizer cautioned, “preying on your fears and targeting those desperate for a solution.”
Editor's note: This article was originally published December 9, 2020 and has been updated with new information on the coronavirus vaccine.