State officials and federal agencies warn there's a new phone scam circulating: Callers posing as COVID-19 contact tracers are trying to pry credit card or bank account information from unsuspecting victims.
The grifters apparently are taking advantage of a genuine public health intervention that is crucial to stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus: contact tracing.
In one scam, detailed in a warning from the Montana attorney general, fraudsters are telling their victims, "I'm calling from your local health department to let you know that you have been in contact with someone who has COVID-19."
Then they move in for the kill, asking for payment information "before we continue."
Don't fall for that, say public health advocates and officials. Legitimate contact tracers don't ask for payment or seek other financial information.
"That is absolutely not part of the process," says Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "No one should give bank information or credit card information."
How genuine contact tracing works
Real contact tracers generally work for health departments. They contact COVID-positive patients to track symptoms. They help the people they call figure out how to isolate themselves from others until they clear the virus and determine which friends, neighbors, colleagues or acquaintances they might have been near in the days just before or after they tested positive for the coronavirus.
The contact tracers then race against the clock with more phone calls, hoping to reach the folks on that list who might have been exposed to the virus, and persuade them, too, to quarantine themselves for a brief period.
This tried-and-true public health tool (along with washing hands, wearing a mask in public and maintaining 6 feet of physical distance from people outside your household) is one of the few strategies available to slow the spread of the virus while scientists work on treatments and vaccines.
Legitimate contact tracing is being employed widely in some areas, including the District of Columbia and Hawaii, and has been credited with helping some countries, such as Taiwan and New Zealand, contain the virus.
But with this success has come bad actors, too. The Federal Trade Commission, U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the Better Business Bureau and state law enforcement groups from across the U.S. have issued consumer alerts about unscrupulous people who are not affiliated with health departments using phone calls, texts or emails to get personal information from those they scam.
Be discerning, but don't avoid real tracers
Legitimate tracing calls might be preceded by a text message, notifying patients of an upcoming call from the health department. Then, in that initial call, the legitimate tracer will seek to confirm an address and date of birth, especially if you are the COVID-positive patient, Watson says.
"They ask about your identity," Watson says, "to make sure you are the person they are trying to reach so they don't disclose potentially private information to the wrong person."
Given the prevalence of scammers, it's good to be initially suspicious of such a call, until you've sussed out its source, health officials say.
"Anytime someone calls you for information, you should be concerned about who is calling," says Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. "If they are legitimate, you can say, 'Give me your name and phone number' and you can always call them back" after doing some checking.
One thing to consider: Did the caller ID indicate the call was from a health department? Some, but not all, states are including that information. For example, Virginia's calls are from the "VDH COVID Team." Call the health department if you have any questions.
Be discerning, but don't avoid genuine help. Real contact tracers can also help people who must isolate or quarantine by connecting them with resources, such as food or medicine delivery.
"Some can even provide you with a separate place to quarantine safely" if, for example, you live in a multigenerational house with no separate bathroom or bedroom in which to isolate, Watson says.
At the end of the call, a genuine contact tracer may ask if they can call or text you in the coming days to check on how any symptoms may be progressing. That's OK. Once you've ascertained they are a real contact tracer, providing them with that sort of information helps not just you, but your community, too.
So, what else should you watch for, to avoid being scammed?
Signs of a fraudster
Be concerned if you get an initial text asking you to click on a link, which might be spam and could download software onto your phone, the Federal Trade Commission warns.
"Unlike a legitimate text message from a health department, which only wants to let you know they'll be calling, this message includes a link to click," the FTC says. And contact tracers in most regions do not ask your immigration or financial status.
Another clear red flag: being asked for your Social Security number. Don't ever divulge that. And beware of any caller who gives you names of the COVID-19 patients they say led them to you — that's a sign of a scammer.
"An authorized contact tracer will not disclose the identity of the person who tested positive and is the starting place for that tracing effort," the Wisconsin attorney general's office notes in a recent statement outlining ways consumers can spot and protect themselves from such scams.
Finally, if you think you've been contacted by a scammer — by phone, email or text — report that to regulatory agencies, such as your state attorney general's office.
"If you see something, say something," said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in a recent consumer alert his office issued. "We are working to track these impostors."
Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit, editorially independent news service of the Kaiser Family Foundation. KHN is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
State officials and federal agencies warn of a new phone scam. Callers pose as COVID-19 contact tracers to try to get your personal information.
With us now via Skype to discuss this is reporter Julie Appleby of Kaiser Health News. Welcome.
JULIE APPLEBY: Thank you.
INSKEEP: So what does it sound like when you get a call from a fake contact tracer?
APPLEBY: Well, you know, scammers are very creative. So officials are kind of telling me that there's various scenarios. But one of them goes something like this; your phone rings, and the person on the other end says they're calling you from your local health department to let you know that you've been in contact with someone who has COVID-19. And the person might say, hey, you need a COVID test.
So sounds legit so far. Right? But then they move in for their real objective, which is getting your credit card number or other payment information. You know, they might say something like, hey, we need that to bill you for sending you a test, for example. Basically, don't fall for that. Some scams also come in by text, and they ask you to click on a link. Do not click on the link.
INSKEEP: You know, I'm thinking about how most scams play on people's greed or their gullibility. This is especially offensive, I think, because it plays on people's fear in the pandemic or plays even on their public-spiritedness. People want to do the right thing, and they're being taken advantage of.
APPLEBY: Right. That's exactly right. And legitimate contact tracing is very important. It's one of the key things, along with, you know, masking and social distancing, that the public health experts are hoping will slow the spread of the virus. So this is particularly insidious.
INSKEEP: How widespread is this?
APPLEBY: You know, we're hearing it from states across the country, from Hawaii to Florida to Pennsylvania. There's a national warning out from the Federal Trade Commission and another from the Better Business Bureau. Some local neighborhood Listservs I've seen and Facebook pages are also circulating a warning.
INSKEEP: So I'm thinking about the fact that I might really get a real call from a real contact tracer. How can I tell the difference between the real person and the fake?
APPLEBY: OK. So a legitimate contact tracer does not ask for payment or seek any other financial information, so that's one way you can tell. Real tracers do not ask for your Social Security number. They will not provide the name of the patient with whom you had contact. And texts from these contact tracers simply let you know to expect a phone call. Right? They don't contain a link.
So if you do get a phone call, do a little homework. Ask for the person's name and their return phone number and say you will call them back. Then, check with your local health department to confirm that this person is indeed doing contact tracing. That would be one way you could kind of counter that.
And if you do get a call, don't be surprised if a real contact tracer asks you to confirm your address or date of birth. They need this information because they don't want to give sensitive health information to the wrong person. So they're trying to confirm your identity. Real tracers are going to also ask you for information about where you've been and who you've been in contact with during the days surrounding your diagnosis or exposure, and that's because they need that information to track it and warn others of potential exposure.
INSKEEP: So a real contact tracer should be somebody I could find, whose identity I can confirm, who may ask me for personal information. But if they start trying to get money out of me, that's the obvious sign.
APPLEBY: That's correct - or any kind of financial information. That is an obvious sign.
INSKEEP: Julie, thanks so much for the warning.
APPLEBY: OK. Thank you.
INSKEEP: Julie Appleby of Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.