In late December, the FBI, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services issued a warning to Americans about fraud schemes related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – and in particular, those related to the approved COVID-19 vaccines.
As the Biden administration aims to ramp up vaccine distribution across the country, numerous state officials have echoed the federal government’s warning about COVID-19 vaccine scams.
Here are some of the more common scams to look out for and what to do if you think you’ve been contacted by a scammer.
COVID-19 scams – vaccine-related or otherwise – are largely digital schemes aimed at committing identity theft and online fraud. Unfortunately, these schemes vary in style, scope, and intent, which makes parsing out fact from fiction all the more difficult.
“There's a lot of social media scams, advertisements, there's unsolicited emails, phone calls, robocalls, there's text messaging, door-to-door services where people are offering you the opportunity to get the vaccine sent to your home, to get home-tested, or to be put on a waiting list for the vaccine if you could pay a small fee,” Rania Mankarious, CEO of Crime Stoppers of Houston, told Spectrum News. “They're offering you to take part in surveys, or marketing campaigns, or test groups for the vaccine. And all of that is false, all of it is fake.”
Even before shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrived in Texas in mid-December, officials had already warned of new phishing scams created to coerce people into sharing passwords and personal information in exchange for the promise of a COVID vaccine.
On Tuesday, the FBI in Houston reiterated their warning on Twitter, saying any offer for a vaccine in exchange for payment is a scam.
Vaccine scams are not isolated to Texas.
On Monday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned constituents to "beware of COVID vaccine fraud & scams," in particular any promising vaccinations in exchange for payment.
According to New York’s Department of Financial Services, the state has experienced a "surge in coronavirus (COVID-19) scams using social media and websites, emails and texts." Scammers have been using the official DFS letterhead, email domain, and phone number to fraudulently contact consumers for a variety of reasons.
Officials in Florida have warned of similar scams, warning consumers to be on the lookout for any offers to "get on the waiting list," "get moved up on the list," or "expedite delivery." Neither approved vaccine is available for purchase over the internet.
"As the COVID vaccine becomes available, scammers are using this to take advantage — as Florida’s consumer protection agency, we’re working to help consumers stay safe and avoid falling victim," Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said in a statement. "Consumers should beware of any offers to 'get on a wait list' or 'get moved up on the list,' or receive expedited delivery of the vaccine, among other scam concerns."
"When in doubt, contact the FDACS Division of Consumer Services as we will look into all consumer complaints," Fried added.
Last week, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) warned of a common scam popping up across the country where victims are asked to share their insurance information via telephone or text message.
"I gave (the scammer) my Medicare number and confirmed my name and address," one victim reported to the BBB. "He said he was going to come out to my house to administer the (COVID-19) test, and then the vaccine but he never showed."
Regardless of where you are, there are some universal steps to take to protect yourself from vaccine-related scams.
Experts say the solicitation of money in exchange for a vaccine is one of the more common scams they see. In any state, this is an easy way to spot a scam: you cannot pay to put your name on a vaccination list, nor can you pay to get early access to the vaccine, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Many experts also agree on one simple rule of thumb for detecting scams: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Still, it’s important for consumers to be familiar with their local government’s vaccine distribution policy, which Mankarious says should be obtained from "reputable sources" in order to "mitigate false information" about the virus.
"The best defense is education," Mankarious said of spotting COVID vaccine scams. "We're all desperate to navigate and understand this virus, and we're all desperate to get back to life as normal. But don't contribute by sharing information you don't know is true."
"We're also calling on people to — before you go ahead and share information related to COVID — please make sure your source is a local government website, a state website, or a federal website,” she added.
In Texas, for example, people are able to locate vaccination hubs in their area through the Department of State Health Services COVID-19 Vaccine Provider Locations map. The directory shows every clinic, hospital, pharmacy and health department in the state of Texas authorized to administer either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines.
Should you receive a call, text message, advertisement, or other offer for a vaccine from a non-registered provider, do not get a vaccination from that location — even if it does come from a health practitioner, the COVID-19 vaccines require strict storage protocols in order to be effective.
"An improperly stored vaccine will lose its potency,” City of Houston Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Persse told a local station in December. "It doesn’t turn into poison. So people don’t need to worry about that but it won’t be effective."
Experts also urge Americans to report any COVID scams to their local FBI or BBB offices as soon as possible, regardless of whether the ruse was successful.