State officials and federal agencies are alerting to a new phone scam: Callers posing as COVID-19 contact trackers and trying to obtain credit card or bank account information from unsuspecting victims.
It appears that the scammers are taking advantage of a genuine public health intervention that is crucial to stopping the spread of the new coronavirus: contact tracing.
In one such scam, detailed in a Montana attorney general’s warning, scammers tell their victims, “I’m calling from the local health department to let them know that you’ve been in contact with someone who has COVID-19.” They then ask for credit card information “before proceeding.”
Don’t be fooled. Legitimate contact trackers do not request payments or seek other financial information, consumer advocates and officials warn.
“It’s not part of the process at all,” said Crystal Watson, a senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “No one should give out bank or credit card information.”
Real contact trackers generally work for health departments. They contact patients who have tested positive for COVID to ask about their symptoms and help them isolate themselves until they are virus-free, and to determine which friends, neighbors, colleagues, or acquaintances may have been close in the days before or after the test. of the coronavirus.
So the trackers hunt for those contacts in a race against time, hoping those people will be quarantined as well.
This tried-and-true public health tool (along with hand washing, wearing a mask in public, and maintaining a physical distance of 6 feet between people outside the home) is one of the few strategies available to slow the spread of the virus while scientists research potential treatments and vaccines.
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Legitimate contact tracing is being done widely in some areas, like the District of Columbia and Hawaii, and has been credited with helping countries like New Zealand and Taiwan contain the virus.
But with this success also come the profiteers. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the Better Business Bureau, law enforcement, and health officials across the country, have issued consumer alerts about people without scruples who are not affiliated with health departments and who use the telephone. calls, texts, or emails to obtain personal information from their victims.
What differentiates a real call from a fake one? For one thing, legitimate trace calls can be preceded by a text message, notifying patients of an upcoming call from the health department.
Then, on that initial call, the legitimate tracker looks to confirm an address and date of birth, especially if you’re a COVID-positive patient, Watson said.
“They ask about your identity to make sure you are the person they are trying to communicate with so as not to reveal potentially private information to the wrong person,” he added.
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Trackers can also help people who need to isolate or self-quarantine connect them to resources, such as food or medicine delivery.
“Some may even provide you with a place outside the home to safely quarantine” if, for example, you live in a multi-generational home without the ability to have a separate bedroom or bathroom, Watson said.
At the end of the call, the tracker may ask if they can call or text you in the next few days to check on how the symptoms are progressing.
What should you watch out for?
Be concerned if you receive an initial text message asking you to click on a link, which could be spam and download software to your phone, the FTC warned in May.
“Unlike a legitimate text message from a health department, which just wants to let you know that they will call you, this message includes a link to click,” the agency said.
Another clear red alert: if they ask for your social security number. Contact trackers in most regions don’t ask that, and neither does your immigration or financial status.
Also, be careful if any names of COVID patients are provided.
“An authorized contact tracker will not reveal the identity of the person who tested positive,” the Wisconsin attorney general’s office said in a statement warning consumers of the scams. Another tip: do some research before answering.
“Every time someone calls for information, you have to worry about who they are,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “If they are legitimate, you can say ‘Tell me your name and phone number’ and you can always call them back” after checking.
Did the caller ID indicate the call was from a health department? Some states include that information. For example, the calls from Virginia are from the “VDH COVID Team.”
“Scammers prefer to take advantage of people who may be more trusting, who are alone or who may respond out of confusion or fear,” Pennsylvania Aging Area Secretary Robert Torres said in an Aug. 12 news release. “It is important that they remain vigilant about any contact from anyone who identifies as a contact tracker and does not provide personal information until they are sure that the person is legitimate.”
And finally, if you think a scammer has contacted you (by phone, email, or text), report it to agencies, such as your state attorney general’s office.
“If you see something, say something,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a recent consumer alert issued by his office. “We are working to track down these impostors.”
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a non-profit news service that covers health topics. It is an editorially independent program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) that is not related to Kaiser Permanente.