With several approved vaccines beginning distribution, experts warn to be wary of scams

Man receiving vaccine - vaccine scams
Photo via Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Several approved vaccines have begun distribution, and now federal agencies are warning the public against an onslaught of COVID-19-related scams.

According to AP News, investigators from Homeland Security are cooperating with drug developers like Pfizer and Moderna in order to prepare for potential vaccine scams. “We’re all very excited about the potential vaccine and treatments,” Steve Francis, assistant director for global trade investigations with Homeland Security Investigations, told AP News in late November. “But I also caution against these criminal organizations and individuals that will try to exploit the American public.”

On Dec. 11, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave emergency use authorization (EUA) to the Pfizer vaccine. It also issued a warning about the potential for fraud in the form of fake goods and services related to COVID-19 treatment. “The FDA is particularly concerned that these deceptive and misleading products might cause Americans to delay or stop appropriate medical treatment, leading to serious and life-threatening harm,” a statement by the agency reads.

So what exactly should people be looking out for? Here’s a quick rundown of the many vaccine scams that are reportedly making the rounds online.

Robocalls, texts, and emails

If you have a phone, chances are high that you’ll receive an automated call—or “robocall”—playing a message similar to this one, which reportedly surfaced in early December:

“You have the chance to avoid anticipated long lines and get a single dose of the Pfizer COVID vaccine sent to your home for a one-time payment of $79.99.”

If you get a call or text of this nature, hang up immediately or delete it straight away. 

Federal agencies also warn of fraudulent websites and email campaigns promising early access to the vaccine. The criminals behind these ventures reportedly keep their eye on the latest scientific news and use similar language in their materials to trick people into thinking it is legitimate. They also are likely to pose as organizations fundraising for charity, and ask for donations to help individuals and communities deeply affected by COVID-19.

According to the interim recommendation released by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), based on “scientific evidence of SARS-CoV-2 epidemiology, vaccination program implementation, and ethical principles,” it is recommended that “both health care personnel and residents of long-term care facilities be offered vaccination in the initial phase of the COVID-19 vaccination program (Phase 1a).” 

Most states are reportedly following ACIP’s Phase 1a recommendation, so if you are not a healthcare worker or a long-term care facility resident, it is highly unlikely that you will receive a COVID-19 vaccine in the first phase.

Rather than respond to robocalls, emails, or text messages that promise early access to a coronavirus vaccine, talk to your family doctor about your options or visit your local health department’s official website for more information.

Non-vaccine coronavirus ‘cures’

Earlier this year, companies claiming their products could cure or prevent COVID-19 received several warnings from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC released a breakdown of these products, which include colloidal silver, teas, essential oils, vitamin C, and even a silicone facial brush.

Warnings from the FTC stated that if the false claims are not halted, the commission may seek a federal court injunction and an order requiring companies to issue monetary refunds to all their consumers.

“It’s shameful to take advantage of people by claiming that a product prevents, treats, or cures COVID-19,” Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a press release. “We’re seeing these false claims for all sorts of products, but anyone who makes them simply has no proof and is likely just after your money.”

Sham COVID-19 trials

In November, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) issued a scam alert for fake messages sent via text, email, or social media. These typically promise an avenue into clinical trials that pay upwards of $1,000 during the pandemic. A version of the scam read:

“Local Covid19 Study: Compensation up to $1,220! Qualify Here: [link removed] stop2stop.”

Do not click on the link. Doing so may trigger a malware download on your device and can give scammers access to your personal information, including usernames and passwords. It may also link to a website that is designed to look like a legitimate clinical trial, where you will be asked to enter your personal information, such as your government ID or bank account number.

It is important to note that real clinical trials may ask you for your contact information as well as personal information related to a medical study, such as your age, gender, race, ethnicity, or medical history. Legitimate clinical trials, however, will never ask you for your financial information and will never ask you to pay them to be included.

Malicious Facebook ads and messages

Incorrect information regarding COVID-19 on Facebook comes in a myriad of forms. From highly problematic ads downplaying proven methods for curbing the disease (such as mask wearing and social distancing) to Facebook sellers peddling fake personal protective equipment, masks, and antiviral medication, most people have probably stumbled across some form of coronavirus-related Facebook fraud. 

“Anyone can create a Facebook ad,” Laura Blankenship, director of marketing for the BBB serving Eastern Michigan & the Upper Peninsula, told the Herald News. “Some Facebook ads impersonate well known websites, therefore, it’s best to visit the website in a separate browser rather than clicking on the ad.”

Unsolicited messages from strangers or seemingly out-of-the-blue messages from your Facebook contacts that contain a link to a real-looking website could also be a vaccine scam. Links included in direct messages are often phishing attempts designed to steal your personal information, including your identity or banking details. Clicking one of these links could also reportedly trigger coronavirus-related ransomware designed to lock you out of your computer’s files, which will only be accessible once you pay the criminals responsible for the scam.

You do not need to enter login details to view information on the official CDC or WHO websites, so be wary of web pages that ask you to put in a username or password. If you receive a suspicious message from a Facebook friend or family member, it is advisable to contact them outside of the platform to confirm the message came from them. Always report suspicious messages to Facebook.

Fake medical products

According to AP News, home test kits were only recently made available to the public, but investigators have seized tens of thousands of fake kits. They have been aware of this vaccine scam since as early as April. Counterfeit medical supplies like masks, gloves, and gowns, as well as mislabeled medication, were also seized by federal trade law enforcement agencies earlier this year.

A telltale sign of fake products online is extremely low prices. High quality products are not cheap to make. And while it may be a good idea to try and score sales with other types of products, when it comes to COVID-19, skimping for a good deal is not recommended.

If you want to ensure what you are purchasing is not counterfeit, buy goods directly from the source. That means sourcing products straight from brand owners, manufacturers, authorized dealers, and well-known retailers. Make sure the company you are buying from has a working customer service phone number or email address and has a legitimate business address before you give your personal and payment information. Always use a credit card so you can dispute the charges later on in case there’s a problem with the transaction.

Bogus COVID-19 websites

As early as March, an uptick in coronavirus-related domain names was reportedly observed by several security researchers. Thousands of new domain names appear to be created on a daily basis. Most of these sites are designed to steal your private information, install malware on your devices, trick you into paying for services, and in some cases, scare you into believing the worst can happen if you don’t “act now.”

To avoid falling prey to these scam websites, check the domain name by doing a manual search for it on Google.

Phony government agency messages

According to TechRepublic, Cybersecurity firm Trustwave was observing coronavirus-related activity on the dark web as early as February of this year, right before the disease ballooned into a global pandemic. 

“When the COVID-19 situation started we were amazed how quickly they started looking for ways to monetize the situation,” Ziv Mador, vice president of security research at Trustwave SpiderLabs, told TechRepublic. “We even captured some communication on the dark web forums early on where they were discussing new opportunities in the COVID-19 situation. ‘Let’s monetize them’ — they actually used that language.”

One difficult to detect vaccine scam regards imposters pretending to be government officials. They reach out to unsuspecting citizens with a promise of COVID-19 relief grants or stimulus payments, promptly leading them to an official looking website that will ask for personal information (such as a Social Security Number) and banking details. It will claim these details are “necessary” to verify your identity and transfer funds to you. Other scams will try to entice people with additional money or the prospect of receiving funds ASAP, for a small “processing fee.”

Government agencies never communicate through social media. Typically, they reach out through snail mail. Another thing to note is that these agencies will never ask you for money to provide a “free” grant.

To avoid falling for this vaccine scam, make sure you do your own research and look up the name of the government agency or organization without clicking through any links in their message. If a government official is mentioned in the message, look the person up on the agency’s official website or try calling them. Finally, go to Grants.gov to find out actual information on the grant process — it is the only place to find an official list of all U.S. federal grant-making agencies.

How to protect yourself from a coronavirus con

Always be wary of anything you read or hear when it comes to COVID-19. Along with the advice mentioned above, here are a couple of useful habits to develop:

  • When in doubt, use Google. Never click on links or ads even if they look like they come from a reputable website. Go to your device’s browser and manually search on Google for the company’s name or product name, followed by terms like “scam”, “complaint”, or “covid-19 scam.”
  • Routinely visit the official websites of the FDA, FTC, and CDC as well as your local health department’s official website for reliable updates on the coronavirus vaccine.
  • Always double check the URL of the website you are looking at. If the message claims to be from a U.S. government agency, the URL should end in .gov.
  • Ignore grandiose claims that use terms like “cure” and “free.” Ignore messages telling you to “act now.”
  • Screen your phone calls and do not answer a call from a number you do not recognize. If you still use a landline, get an answering machine.
  • Never use the same password for multiple accounts. Look into using a reputable password manager app or service that generates randomized long passwords that will be harder to guess or hack.
  • Never share your Social Security number, credit card number, or Medicare to an unsolicited call, text, or email.
  • Regularly check fact-checking websites like Snopes for the latest in fraud and scams. If you spot a business or an offer that sounds suspicious, report it to BBB’s Scam Tracker, where you can also check for the latest vaccine scams reported by actual and potential victims.

Read more on the coronavirus vaccine:

Sources: AP News [1, 2], KLFY, AARP [1, 2], CDC, Kaiser Family Foundation, FTC, BBB [1, 2], Consumer Reports, The Herald News, Facebook, ZDNet, TechRepublic, Grants.gov, Snopes

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