As states ramp up their contact tracing efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, so too are scammers who are preying on consumers’ fears, experts said.
“Scammers love pandemics. They are having a field day,” said Steve Bernas, President and CEO of the Better Business Bureau, serving Chicago and Northern Illinois.
Bernas said 90 percent of complaints to BBB’s Scam Tracker are COVID-19 related, and among the newest schemes involve criminals posing as public health workers.
Contact tracing is seen as the bread and butter of public health departments. Tracers are tasked with calling those who test positive for the virus and all their contacts to encourage them to monitor symptoms and self-quarantine.
Tracers will often send text messages, directing positive patients to contact their local health departments. The Federal Trade Commission is warning of a big difference between legitimate and fraudulent contact tracing efforts.
“Scammers, pretending to be contact tracers and taking advantage of how the process works, are also sending text messages. But theirs are spam text messages that ask you to click a link,” the FTC said in a release.
That link often leads to malware on devices that give scammers access to personal and financial information.
Thousands of fraud cases have been reported in New Jersey. The BBB said while cases are popping up out east, it’s only a matter of time before they take hold here.
Indiana’s State Health Commissioner said it has received reports of people claiming to be with the Department of Health and asking inappropriate questions.
“I want to assure you that ISDH contact tracers are only asking for information related to your COVID-19 symptoms and the people that you've been in contact with,” said Dr. Kristina Box. “If you get a call from someone claiming to be from ISDH who asked other questions, please let us know.”
A contact tracer may ask coronavirus positive patients about demographics, pre-existing medical conditions and travel history, such as attendance at a large event. Close contacts include those who were within 6 feet of the infected person for at least 15 minutes starting 48 hours prior to symptom onset, according to the Cook County Department of Public Health.
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Tracers will never ask people for social security numbers, bank account information and other finances.
The FTC advices consumers to install multi-factor authentication on devices to make it more difficult for scammers to access accounts, even if they have usernames and passwords.
“Scammers are preying on fears,” Bernas said. “This is everybody from zero to 100 years of age, so everybody’s a potential victim, and this is a dream come true for scammers.”