As the COVID-19 pandemic continues taking its toll, phone scammers are using robocalls and call-back scams to prey on consumer fear and confusion. Calls offer free home testing kits, promote bogus vaccine distribution, sell health insurance, and promise financial relief.
The Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG) issued a fraud alert warning against COVID-19 vaccine schemes and encouraging consumers to be mindful of potentially fraudulent activity related to vaccine distribution. Multiple agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), have partnered with the HHS-OIG to amplify the alert, and the Federal Trade Commission is sharing tips on how to avoid vaccine-related scams and asking consumers to report them to ReportFraud.ftc.gov.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently issued a warning about fraudulent COVID-19 products. For months, robocalls have been offering free virus test kits in an effort to collect consumers' personal and health insurance information. One pernicious version of this scam targeted higher risk individuals with diabetes, offering a free COVID-19 testing kit along with a free diabetic monitor. Other robocalls have promoted fake cures and solicited payment over the phone.
Internationally, the World Health Organization (WHO) has posted warnings about criminals seeking to take advantage of the pandemic in order to steal money or sensitive personal information. The warning urges people to be wary of phone calls and text messages that impersonate the WHO and ask for account information or for money.
Fraudsters also prey on financial fears tied to the pandemic. The FCC is aware of robocall scams with COVID-19 themed work-from-home opportunities, debt consolidation offers, and student loan repayment plans. (For legitimate information about the coronavirus-related interest rate deferral on student loans, check FSA's website.)
Many Americans will receive 2021 Economic Impact Payments as part of the federal government's American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the third stimulus payment in response to the coronavirus pandemic. As with previous stimulus payments from the federal government, you should know that no one will call or text you to verify your personal information or bank account details in order to "release" the funds. You can track details about the timing and amount of payments as they become available at https://www.irs.gov/coronavirus.
Consumers aren't the only target. Small businesses have also received scam calls about virus-related funding or loans.
A number of well-established robocall scams have adapted their pitches to mention the virus. Auto warranty calls may now include a warning about needing financial security and protection from a mechanical failure in these "uncertain times."
If you think you've been a victim of a coronavirus scam, contact law enforcement immediately.
The Department of Justice has a hotline for consumers who believe they have been a victim of a scam or fraud related to COVID-19. The National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline is 1-866-720-5721.
The FCC offers the following tips to help you protect yourself from scams, including coronavirus scams:
- Do not respond to calls or texts from unknown numbers, or any others that appear suspicious.
- Never share your personal or financial information via email, text messages, or over the phone.
- Be cautious if you're being pressured to share any information or make a payment immediately.
- Scammers often spoof phone numbers to trick you into answering or responding. Remember that government agencies will never call you to ask for personal information or money.
- Do not click any links in a text message. If a friend sends you a text with a suspicious link that seems out of character, call them to make sure they weren't hacked.
- Always check on a charity – for example, by calling or looking at its actual website before donating. (Learn more about charity scams.)
File coronavirus scam complaints online with the Federal Trade Commission.