While COVID-19 vaccine rollouts have steadily increased in the United States over the past several weeks, appointments to get inoculated against the novel virus are still relatively rare across the country – and scammers are taking advantage of the scarcity.
USA Today reports that previous scams, like the ones selling fake COVID-19 testing products, are still existent, but that scammers are now adding vaccines to their repertoire.
What kinds of COVID-19 scams are experts worried about?
The Federal Communications Commission has issued a warning about text and robocall scams that promise an expedited appointment process in exchange for payment. “Anyone who asks for a payment to put you on a list, make an appointment for you or reserve a spot in line is a scammer,” said the government agency.
Lisa Schifferle, a senior policy analyst at the Office of Older Americans in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said “don’t pay for promises of early access. That’s a scam.”
Online ads or text messages promising to sell interested parties COVID-19 vaccines are also fraudulent, as the vaccines are only available in the United States at locations approved at the federal or state level, like pharmacies or vaccination centers.
What are the red flags to look for regarding COVID-19 vaccine scams?
Vaccine sites may request to see your identification or insurance information, but consumers should not give that information to someone who calls and asks for it. They should also avoid making payments to anyone via payment apps or PayPal to purchase a vaccine, say consumer advocates.
Eduard Bartholme, an associate chief at the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau of the FCC, told USA Today that consumer watchdogs fear that scammers will impersonate health departments or insurance companies, similar to an incident that occurred this week in Michigan.
Officials in Oakland County received complaints that at least two people received a phone call from someone who claimed to be a public health official calling to schedule a vaccine appointment and asked them for personal and financial information.
“As far as we're concerned, if two people reported to us, probably thousands have been contacted,” said a spokesperson for the County Executive.
Experts warn that scammers will try to get financial information out of their victims, but real health officials won’t ask for things like your Social Security number or your bank or credit card information. They will also identify themselves specifically, whereas scammers will use vague terms like saying they are calling from “your insurance provider” or “your local health department.”
This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices issued guidance that urged embracing “a flexible approach” to the vaccine, especially when it was close to being unused, urging clinics and pharmacies to use all leftover doses of the COVID-19 vaccines before they expire.
How to report COVID-19 vaccine scams
However, vaccination centers have protocols in place to ensure proper usage of all doses, and are setting up waitlists or coordinating with local nursing homes. They will not reach out to random individuals to offer vaccines. If you receive a call or text message offering one, especially if money is involved, you can report it to the Department of Health and Human Services at this link or by calling all 800-HHS-TIPS (800-447-8477).