'Don't pay for promises of early access': Scammers are texting, calling people to get them to pay for COVID-19 shots

Susan Tompor
Detroit Free Press

As efforts build to vaccinate more seniors and others against COVID-19, consumer watchdogs are aggressively getting the word out about scammers who will soon pivot their messaging around whatever dominates the news.

The latest warnings: Watch out for the next text or robocall that asks you to pay money up front to get on a list to receive a vaccine. And don't click on links in texts that arrive out of the blue, either.

"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," according to a warning by the Federal Communications Commission.

Eduard Bartholme, an associate chief at the FCC Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, said early coronavirus scams focused on selling fake testing products and supplies, and those scams are continuing. 

But there's growing concern, he said, that more consumers will soon hear from con artists who are impersonating an insurance company or health department as part of the vaccination effort.

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New COVID-19 tricks for old scams

Consumer watchdogs, he said, are starting to hear reports already of scammers. COVID-19 related scams have been reported in Michigan, Florida and other states, according to federal regulators. 

This week, officials in a Michigan county reported that two consumers complained that they were called by someone impersonating a public health worker who reportedly was trying to schedule an appointment. 

And then the crooks asked for financial information and personal information that could later be used in ID theft schemes. People who suspect a scam are told to call the non-emergency phone number for your local police.

A huge red flag: No one is going to ask you for credit card information, a Social Security number or bank account information in order to get an appointment for a vaccine. 

The scam call plays up the notion that you need to verify personal and insurance information to book an appointment, which isn't necessary. 

Signs of vaccine scam

Clues of a scam: The caller will likely say they are associated with the "local health department" or your "insurance provider." They're often not naming your specific county or even your state. And they may not even rattle off the name of your specific insurance provider. 

No one is going to be calling you from the Social Security Administration either, to sign you up for a time for receiving your vaccine. 

What the scammers try to do is catch you off guard into thinking the call could possibly be real. 

Amjed Jadallah goes over paperwork while working to administer shots of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in an underground parking garage at TCF Center in downtown Detroit on Wednesday, February 3, 2021 as part of a drive-up distribution for the city of Detroit.

All the news about the high demand for shots and short supplies of the vaccine could present another opening for scammers, too. They realize that some people are flustered after many repeated attempts to book an appointment for a shot. 

"Don't pay for promises of early access. That's a scam," warned Lisa Schifferle, senior policy analyst for Office of Older Americans at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. 

Another scam alert: Don't fall for any advertisements on social media, by text or elsewhere that you can purchase a COVID-19 vaccine.

You cannot buy the vaccine online. Fake websites have been impersonating drug makers, as well as government agencies. 

"Ignore sales ads for the COVID-19 vaccine. You can't buy it anywhere," Bartholme said in a webinar presentation. 

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The vaccine is only available at federal and state approved locations, such as vaccination centers and pharmacies.

Watch out for COVID-19 'contact tracers'

Con artists are also impersonating contact tracers, the people who work for state health departments to try to track anyone who may have been exposed to COVID-19.

The Federal Trade Commission warns that scammers may pretend to be contact tracers so they can profit off the current confusion. The crooks are out to steal your identity, your money — or both.

Legitimate contact tracers aren't asking for money, credit card information, Social Security numbers or bank account information. And you don't need to answer questions about your immigration status either. 

Consumer watchdogs say a big warning sign is whenever someone calls you to ask for money or perhaps payment via PayPal or another peer-to-peer app to cover anything associated with the vaccine or the virus.

While you may need to provide ID or insurance information at the vaccine site, consumer advocates say, you should not hand over that information in advance to someone who calls you out of the blue.

Consumers should check with their state or local health department to learn when and how to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Plans vary across the country and will change over time, so you need to keep up to date. 

Some helpful tips include letting a phone call go to voicemail if you don't recognize a phone number. Consumer advocates say scammers rarely leave messages.

It's also OK to simply hang up if a stranger asks for personal or financial information. 

ContactSusan Tompor via stompor@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter@tompor. To subscribe, please go to freep.com/specialoffer. Read more on business and sign up for our business newsletter.