The current surge in COVID-19 cases heralds a surge in pandemic-related scams. Fraud involving economic stimulus checks, ineffective or dangerous medical interventions, pet care, charity scams, phishing or malware delivery is constant and constantly mutates.
Scams now impersonate contact tracing, the process of identifying individuals who may have been exposed to the virus through involvement with others known to test positive or, in the case of those testing positive, providing an alert to others who are at risk. Legitimate contact tracers will identify themselves and the organization for which they work and likely request your name and address, health information (condition) and the names of places you visited or people with whom you have been in contact.
Real contact tracers deal with data and collect facts. Impersonators pose as contact tracers primarily to steal either money or information. They emphasize emotion in their tactics so the scam may attempt to reassure you that you can be assisted or frighten you by painting a bleak or threatening situation. Since contact tracers may reach out to you by phone, text message, email or personal visit, it is safe to assume that the criminals will use these methods as well.
KNOW THE SIGNS
Clear signs are easily recognizable in determining whether you are dealing with a legitimate contact tracer or a criminal. The process is called contact tracing, not contract tracing. A number of reported scam attempts indicated the use of the latter term.
Another indication comes when the criminal identifies his or her organization. While the cost of contact tracing is often covered with federal funds, the actual activity is conducted by state and local government, public agencies or foundations, not by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
Before providing any information, make positive identification. Request a call back or make the call yourself to a number you can authenticate. This can be accomplished by contacting your state health department. In Massachusetts, the state department of health is (617) 624-6000; in New York, it's (888) 364-3065; and in Vermont, it's (800) 464-4343.
Legitimate contact tracers do not ask for money (the preferred scammer payments are gift cards, money orders or cryptocurrency, such as bitcoins). You do not need to provide any bank or credit card information nor will you be asked for your Social Security number.
Contact tracing does not involve citizenship or immigration status, and as a final warning, do not click on email and text links or downloads as these may infect your technology with malware or viruses.
Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic provides the criminal with "the perfect storm" situation for scams: emotion and anxiety. Your task is to reduce these responses by applying logic and reason.
ADDITIONAL SCAM ALERT
The scam begins with an email from a friend or family member and poses a very simple question: Do you have an Amazon account?
A logical response might be "Yes. Why do you ask?" to which the writer answers by saying, "I'm having some trouble with my account and am trying to send my niece a graduation e-card gift from Amazon. Would you help out and buy a $200 e-card for (name a company) and send it to her. I'll send you a check right away."
Those who fall victim purchase the e-card and send it to an email address created for the occasion. The e-card is downloaded, the email account disappears and the victim loses $200.
The criminal was able to obtain your email address and the name of your friend or family member through a data breach that revealed the contents of either your computer address book or contact list or that of the person who's name appears on the email. It's relatively easy to avoid losses in this scam.
First, check the actual sending email. It is likely fraudulent. Second, call the person identified as the sender and verify the request.
Elliott Greenblott is the Vermont coordinator of the AARP Fraud Watch Network. Questions, comments, concerns? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.