(TNS) — Sometimes, scam alerts get out there to warn consumers about an ongoing trouble spot — such as a flurry of robocalls from someone pretending to be from DTE Energy and ready to shut off your heat or someone pretending to be from Amazon or Apple support as you’re shopping online.
Other times, consumer watchdogs want to get the word out ahead of the curve. They’re not hearing from upset consumers just yet but they know that scammers are waiting in the wings and ready to pounce.
Enter the warnings about scams and COVID-19 vaccines. Limited supplies of some vaccines could be out before Christmas — but again, we’re not talking about a wide supply. And it’s expected that frontline health care workers in Michigan and elsewhere would get vaccinated first.
Who’s sure to have the hard-to-get vaccines? Criminal networks are ready to roll out counterfeit versions of approved vaccines, much like fake Gucci bags and Nike sneakers.
WHAT KIND OF VACCINE SCAMS CAN WE EXPECT?
Already, consumer watchdogs are hearing reports of imposters claiming to be Social Security Administration workers in order to get sensitive information from people.
“For example, the scammer calls saying that they are from the Social Security Administration and they’re calling to sign the person up to receive their vaccine,” said Jon Miller Steiger, director of the East Central Region for the Federal Trade Commission. The regional office, based in Cleveland, serves Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia.
As part of the sign-up, the scammer is going to ask for important information such as your Medicare number, name, address and possibly even bank account information.
“This is a scam,” Steiger said.
“The Social Security Administration will not sign you up to receive a vaccine and will not ask for sensitive information by phone, email or text.”
WHAT ARE SOME RED FLAGS OF A COVID-19 SCAM?
Here’s a quick list of potential scams to avoid in the coming months, according to the FTC and others:
If someone tells you they can get you on a waiting list to get a vaccine, forget about it. They’re going to tell you that you need to buy gift cards or hand over cash to get on that list. Hang up, it’s a scam. No one is going to be calling you about the vaccine and asking for your Social Security number, your credit card number or your bank account number in order to make sure you can get the coronavirus vaccine. Again, it’s a scam. Scammers are likely to pitch other “products, treatments, or medicines,” according to the FTC, that they might claim prevent the virus. You want to check with your health care provider before paying for or receiving any COVID-19-related treatment.
We know these things to be true because they happen over and over again when a big event hits the news. The vaccine is likely to be the hot thing in December and for much of 2021.
Two things drive most scams: Fear and greed.
Many people, particularly the elderly, remain extremely fearful about getting COVID-19. Scammers can play with your emotions, sound convincing and get you to hand over your cash. The sooner you get a vaccine, well, maybe the sooner you can see your grandkids.
Who needs to run a sweepstakes scam — though you know those aren’t going away — when you know everybody’s on edge and you can catch them off guard with promises that the vaccine is heading their way?
ATTORNEY GENERAL, OTHERS WARNING US NOW
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, in coordination with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, is warning consumers to avoid “false claims, products and services that promise to cure, treat or prevent COVID-19. Vaccines, treatments, test kits and clinical trials are all examples of what scammers may be offering.”
Consumers must keep in mind that a vaccine has not yet been approved for distribution by the Food and Drug Administration, as of early December. The distribution process is unclear now. Your best bet will be to pay attention to information from your doctor and local health department.
“We all want this devastating virus to go away,” said Nessel in a statement.
“But until a vaccine is approved for distribution by the FDA, if someone offers you a COVID-19 vaccine, do not take it!”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also anticipates a surge in attempts by crooks to sell counterfeit versions of approved vaccines.
“Despite widespread illness and death caused by COVID-19, many individuals and criminal networks are continuing to exploit the pandemic for illegal financial gains, using fraudulent schemes to source, produce, export or sell fake vaccines and related products,” according to investigators.
As of Nov. 25, ICE said it had seized more than $26 million in illicit proceeds from COVID-19 related fraud and criminal activity. The agency made 170 arrests, executed 148 search warrants and reviewed more than 69,000 COVID-19 domain names.
“Working with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, more than 1,600 shipments of mislabeled, fraudulent, unauthorized or prohibited COVID-19 test kits and other related items have been seized,” the agency said.
Michigan consumers can report fraud or make a complaint by calling 517-335-7599 weekdays for the AG’s consumer protection division or go to www.michigan.gov/ag to file a complaint online.
WATCH OUT FOR PHONY TESTING
This year, many consumers are already getting hit by phishing emails and texts involving COVID-19 tests and COVID-19 studies, according to Laura Blankenship, director of marketing for the Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern Michigan & the Upper Peninsula.
One so-called COVID-19 study promised up to $1,220 in compensation. An unsolicited message may claim that you may qualify for a COVID-19 study.
Kind of a new version of one of those mystery shopper deals. Instead of getting paid to shop, though, you supposedly get paid to be a COVID-19 vaccine pin cushion. The fraudsters know we’re hard up for cash in this up-and-down economy.
In other cases, the con artists impersonate the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization. Again, the phishing email is likely to include a link.
By clicking on a link in these emails, Blankenship said, the consumer often would end up downloading malware onto a device, potentially compromising any personal information stored on the device.
The scammers could get access to your usernames, passwords and other personal information stored on your computer.
The scammers use the same platforms that they use for romance scams, sweepstake scams and the like. They’re reaching out through email, text messages and through fake websites.
No matter how anxious you are about your health — or your dating life or the heating bill at your home — you’ve got to step back and recognize that the crooks are well versed on how to steal your ID and your money.
©2020 the Detroit Free Press, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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