Scammers taking advantage of news of COVID vaccine. Here’s what to watch out for
Giulia Heyward and AJ Willingham, CNN
Published at | Updated at
(CNN) — The newly-approved Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is slowly making its way across the US. But those eagerly waiting their turn need to beware of dangerous scams and misinformation about the vaccine’s distribution.
Several government organizations have warned against scammers promising access to the vaccine in exchange for sensitive personal information, as well as companies selling bogus treatments promising to cure or prevent COVID-19.
“The FBI has received complaints of scammers using the public’s interest in COVID-19 vaccines to obtain personally identifiable information and monies through various schemes,” the FBI wrote in a statement to CNN.
The bureau told CNN it plans to remain vigilant as “scammers continue to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic for personal gain.”
Meanwhile, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is working to stop the sale of unapproved COVID-19 drugs, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued warning letters to seven companies selling products with “scientifically unsupported claims” to cure those infected.
“Selling fake vaccines and other treatments is likely only one of many ways scammers will try to cash in on the vaccine release,” the Better Business Bureau warned in a news release. “Watch out for phishing messages attempting to trick you into sharing your passwords and personal information.”
What people can do to stay safe
Where there is interest and uncertainty, there are bound to be scams. The pandemic is a perfect example of that.
“It’s definitely not surprising,” Katherine Hutt, BBB national spokesperson, told CNN. “As a matter of a fact, a couple weeks ago, as soon as it looked like the vaccine was coming out, we started warning people about these scams.”
The BBB has a list of recommendations for people to identify these scams. They include checking with your personal doctor, ignoring any call requesting “immediate action,” and double-checking any information you receive with information from credible news sources.
While a reported 2.9 million doses of the vaccine have made their way to the US, it’s nowhere near close to what’s needed for mass distribution, especially since individuals will need two doses each. Moreover, select groups like health care workers and those in long-term care facilities will be prioritized before the general public.
“Because we know that not everyone is going to be able to get it right away, there is also that issue of scarcity,” Hutt said. “[Scammers] will try to get you to make a decision right on the spot, they’ll tell you if you don’t act today that you’ll lose the opportunity. You’ll be asked to make a decision before you have time to think about it.”
Pandemic scams are nothing new
While news of a vaccine will inevitably lead to new scams, nefarious pandemic-related schemes have already been a problem.
Since the pandemic began, the FTC has received more than 20,000 complaints of text messages and robocalls offering testing kits, bogus treatment and pandemic-related aid. There have also been more than 4,000 reports of pet scams during the pandemic.
Scammers will often latch onto whatever is newsworthy, Hutt points out.
“We know scammers are really good to paying attention to the news or pop culture to whatever people are talking about,” she says. “With the Affordable Care Act, we saw a lot of scams related to that — people asking for information, or claiming that if they didn’t give that information now, they would lose their insurance. [Scams] are very topical, depending on what’s going on the world.”
Ultimately, the best way to inoculate yourself against such predatory schemes is to stay informed.