En español | The incoming call is supposedly from the local health department. The caller sounds professional, though worried. The news is bad: You've spent time with someone who is now sick with COVID-19. Relax, the caller says, and just answer a few questions.
Answering those questions may be your civic duty, or a huge mistake. Consumer advocates say the caller either could be legitimate — or a scammer trying to steal your money or identity.
"The pandemic is a dream come true for scammers,” says Steve J. Bernas, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau that serves Chicago and Northern Illinois. “They tell you you might be infected. You've read all about it and you're scared. That's when your defense wall comes down. After all, you (think) it's the health department because of the caller ID."
Rigging a phone call to make it look as if the call is coming from another number is easy, Bernas warns. “You can buy an app online that can spoof the Internal Revenue Service, a health department or any other number."
Criminals call, email and text
Be careful: Such fraudulent communications may be in a robocall, personal call, text message or an email. Consider Jake M., a young Texan who got a robocall saying he could be part of “contact and tracing efforts.” He reported his brush with fraud to the Better Business Bureau (BBB).
Jake (whose full name is being withheld) was told he had come in contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. When he was asked to verify some personal information, “I ended the call,” Jake told the BBB.
Smart move: Hanging up
That was smart, Bernas says. If you have any doubt about the legitimacy of such calls, hang up and call your local or state health department.
Coronavirus infections are rising in Texas, Florida and several other states. Floridians “have been contacted by callers stating they are with the Florida Department of Health” and asked to give their “Social Security numbers and medical information before the caller can provide COVID-19 results,” the state Health Department cautions.
If you are approached by anyone claiming to work for the Florida Department of Health, or dressed in protective medical gear, ask for verification, and keep in mind that health department staffers will display a badge.
Legitimate contact tracers do not ask for personal information such as Social Security number, bank account or credit-card numbers. They use scripts, like this one used in Massachusetts.
Unfortunately, scammers follow similar scripts and ask for personal information that can fuel a host of financial crimes. Scammers may ask for a payment for the “health department's service,” among other ploys, Bernas says.
Scammers lust for speed
"Scammers also want to do it quickly, within 30 minutes,” Bernas says. “The only thing you should do in 30 minutes is buy a pizza.”
At the Federal Trade Commission, Colleen Tressler says scammers also are sending text messages that ask you to click a link. “Don't take the bait,” says Tressler, a consumer education specialist. “Clicking on the link will download software onto your device giving scammers access to your personal and financial information."
Here's more from the FTC on spam texts.
At the BBB, Bernas notes that if scammers get your Social Security number, they may not use it right away to open financial accounts. They may save it, try for more of your personal data and use the combined information later. If you have made the mistake of giving out your Social Security number, report it to the three major credit bureaus to freeze your accounts. That way scammers cannot open new credit cards. Also, if you believe your Social Security number has been compromised or stolen, report it to its Office of Inspector General and provide any relevant caller ID number.
The best and the worst of humanity
Todd Leatherman, a lawyer with the training and research arm of the National Association of Attorneys General, said attorneys general in every state warned about the onslaught of COVID-19 scams. Prosecuting such cases is difficult; nonetheless, victims should call local law enforcement, he says.
The global health crisis “has brought out the best and worst in people,” he observes. “Among the best are health care workers putting their lives on the line to help save the lives of others. The worst are people trying to use scare tactics to scam people out of money or identities."
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As opportunistic criminals work overtime, keep in mind that you should cooperate with legitimate contact tracers.
At the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Joshua M. Sharfstein says contact tracing, with social distancing and wearing masks, are the best tools to slow the spread of the coronavirus. “Contact tracing helps keep other people — probably people that you might care about — safe,” says Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community involvement.
Plaudits for Hawaii
The success of contact tracing can be seen in places including Germany, South Korea, China and the state of Hawaii, he says. Sharfstein credits Hawaii Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a physician who “was engaged from the beginning” and “worked very closely with the state epidemiologists to design an aggressive contact-tracing program.” As of June 28, Hawaii had a relatively low 899 cases of COVID-19 and 18 deaths, its health department says.
While some epidemiologists are pressing to have contact tracers quickly get in touch with at least 75 percent of the people who have come in contact with anyone who has tested positive, Sharfstein cautions that “it's not all-or-nothing to be successful."
Here are tips from the Florida Department of Health to protect against the COVID-19 phone scams and other frauds.
- The Health Department will not call to ask for a Social Security number or medical information.
- Never share personal or financial information in an email, text or phone call.
- Be cautious if you’re being pressured to immediately divulge information or make a payment.
- Scammers often spoof phone numbers to trick you into answering or responding.
- Remember that government agencies will never call you to ask for personal information or money.
- Do not click any links in a suspicious text or email.
Federal officials issue alert about contact-tracing scams
On Tuesday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and other agencies issued a public alert about contact-tracing scams in which “rogue actors” try to steal money or sensitive data that is not required by tracers.
“As cities and states start to reopen for business and implement contact tracing measures in their reopening plans, the Department of Justice remains committed to preventing, prosecuting, and punishing rogue actors who seek to exploit these safety efforts and who attempt to steal money and sensitive information from citizens,” Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen said.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Federal Trade Commission joined in the alert.
Federal officials said that depending on the state, a person who had contact with someone infected with COVID-19 will either get a phone call or text message from the health department indicating that the person will be receiving a phone call from a specific number. State health departments will not text individuals asking them to call a telephone number or to click a link.
People who have spotted a contact tracing scam or any fraud connected to COVID-19 are urged to report it to the National Center for Disaster Fraud at 866-720-5721 or online at www.Justice.gov/DisasterComplaintForm or ftc.gov/complaint.
For more information on COVID-19 health care related scams, visit the and HHS Office of Inspector General at www.OIG.HHS.gov.