Con Watch: Coronavirus Vaccine and Treatment Scams

People who are eager to get the COVID-19 vaccine may be easily taken in by scammers promising easy sign-up or priority access. Learn what to watch out for.

Man holding a smart phone in front of medical symbols
greenbutterfly / Shutterstock

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Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor, author, and one of the country’s leading experts in cybersecurity, identity theft, and scams. See Steve’s other Con Watch articles.

With confirmed deaths in the United States at more than 400,000, it was a welcome development when the first three million doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine were shipped out on December 13, 2020. However, as welcome as this development was to millions of Americans, criminals are taking advantage of the delays in the availability of the vaccine to scam people.

In one of the scams, people are receiving phone calls that appear to be coming from the Social Security Administration inviting them to sign up to receive a dose of the Pfizer vaccine. However, as a part of the sign-up process, you are asked for your name, address, Social Security number, Medicare number and even, in some instances, your bank account information or credit card information. Sometimes the victim is asked to pay a fee to receive priority in the distribution of the vaccine. The truth is that the Social Security Administration is not calling anyone about getting the vaccine, and no one is being asked to pay a fee to be put on a priority list to receive the vaccine. This is just a scam to get your personal information and use it to make you a victim of identity theft.

Even if the phone number on your Caller ID appears to have come from the CDC or Pfizer, it is not to be trusted. Using a technique called spoofing, your Caller ID can be manipulated to make the call appear to come from a legitimate source. No legitimate companies or governmental agencies are calling people offering the vaccine and asking for personal information, and there is no program that requires people to pay a fee to be put on a priority list.

Many people are also reporting receiving emails with eye-catching subject lines such as “Urgent Information Letter: Covid-19 New Approved Vaccines” that promise to provide you with information about how to get early access to vaccines. You are them prompted to download an attachment that purports to contain all of this tremendously valuable information. Of course, if you do download the attachment, you are actually downloading keystroke logging malware that will steal personal information from your computer.

Vaccine scams are also being sent to potential victims in text messages. Never click on a link or download an attachment unless you have absolutely confirmed that it is legitimate. In the case of unsolicited emails or texts informing you of coronavirus vaccines and how you can get early access to them, it will always be a scam.

For reliable information about the coronavirus and potential vaccines, go to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as your own primary care physician.

In addition to scams related to the vaccine, hundreds of companies are marketing phony cures and treatments for the coronavirus. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is actively trying to stop them, but this effort is much like the carnival game Whack-a-Mole, because every time the FTC shuts down one scammer selling bogus treatments and cures, another pops up.

The FTC has sent cease and desist letters to 350 companies, and this number most likely represents only a small number of the companies trying to foist worthless products on a public eager to find some defense to this pandemic. Some of the bogus treatments include bead bracelets, copper water bottles, red light therapy, intravenous ultraviolet light therapy, peptide therapies, intravenous vitamin drips, intravenous laser therapy, ozone therapy, stem cell therapy, and water filtration systems. None of these treatments or supposed cures have any scientific support for the claims that they can treat or prevent the coronavirus.

As for healthcare products in general, you should always be skeptical about any company that promises miraculous cures to illnesses and medical conditions. The world is full of snake oil salesmen. You should also be wary of any healthcare product that is sold exclusively over the Internet or through mail-order advertisements.

Featured image: greenbutterfly / Shutterstock

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