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10 Red-Hot COVID Scams Vexing Older Americans

Frauds have evolved, so watch out for latest threats

spinner image staged photo of a man wearing sunglasses a mask and a coat shiftily showing us his stash of vaccine vials for sale
Franky DeMeyer/Getty Images/AARP

With the demand for COVID-19 vaccines outpacing the supply, appointments are difficult to make. The conundrum has prompted scammers — hard at work throughout the pandemic — to seek new ways to steal money and personal information from older Americans, federal officials warned on Feb. 23 during an hourlong “COVID-19 Scams and Older Adults” webinar.

After scams involving fake test kits and phony cures, nonexistent cleaning supplies and bogus stimulus grants and other financial benefits (some still wreaking havoc), here's what officials said are among today's red-hot COVID-19 scams:

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1. Vaccine scams. You can't pay to skip the line, reserve an appointment spot or join a clinical trial. Be wary of inbound calls or texts that ask for your Social Security number, financial details or insurance information to reserve your spot. There also have been reports of scammers impersonating local health departments and vaccine providers. Never share personal, financial or medical information with people you don't know. If your pharmacy sends you a text, don't respond; instead reach out with a phone number you know is legit.

2. Vaccine-for-sale scams. Ignore ads touting vaccine for sale from an online pharmacy or elsewhere. It is not.  

spinner image Lisa Schifferle headshot
Courtesy Lisa Schifferle

"Real contact tracers will not ask for money. They will not ask for your Social Security number or your bank or credit card numbers. They also won't ask your immigration status."

—Lisa Schifferle, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Office for Older Americans

3. Contact tracing scams. Genuine contact tracers will not ask for money or your Social Security number, bank account or credit card number. Nor will you be asked to disclose your immigration status.

4. At-home test kit scams. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized at-home diagnostic tests for COVID-19, scammers are posing as Medicare representatives and asking for Social Security numbers in exchange for what they purport is a free test kit. Some promise overnight delivery. Don't believe it. Instead check with your health department to find a legitimate testing site.

5. Government payment scams. Government agencies will not ask you for payments via cash, gift cards, wire transfers or cryptocurrency.

6. Air filter scams. Fraudsters are emailing, texting, calling and sending letters claiming they have air filters that “will remove COVID-19 from the air in your home.” The claim is false.

7. Charity scams. Any emergency or disaster leads to a spike in fraudulent charities, so do your homework before giving, especially if the request arises on social media.

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8. Errand scams. Bad actors will offer to go to the store for you or do another errand, but run off with your money without delivering the goods or performing the task. Instead of paying a stranger, ask for help from a trusted neighbor or friend.

9. Package scams. Last fall leading up to the holidays, there was a rise in text messages with links that led to websites impersonating legitimate delivery companies. Victims were asked for money or personal information for the delivery of bogus packages or goods they never ordered.

10. Peer-to-peer (P2P) mobile payment scams. Exercise caution if you are asked for a fast digital payment. The Venmo app, for example, points out that it is intended for use only between friends and others they trust. The same applies to similar apps.

Meet the Fraud Experts

The officials who participated in the hourlong “COVID-19 Scams and Older Adults” webinar were:

  • Lisa Schifferle of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), Office for Older Americans
  • Eduard Bartholme of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
  • Hilary Dalin of the Health and Human Services Department (HHS), Office of Elder Justice and Adult Protective Services

Here’s a recording of the webinar.

Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book, Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.

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