It’s an unfortunate fact of life that scammers thrive on panic and fear. The coronavirus pandemic, of course, isn’t just a national emergency, it’s an international crisis that has generated more fear than most people have experienced in decades.
So it’s not surprising that state officials and federal agencies are now warning of a new COVID-19-related scam in which callers pose as contact tracers. Here’s what you need to know about this scam and how to avoid falling for scamming tactics.
Learn More About Legitimate Contact Tracing
To identify scammers, it’s important to first understand how contact tracing really works. Legitimate contact tracers work for state or local health departments, and their job is to contact COVID-19 positive patients to track symptoms. This includes contacting anybody with whom an infected person has had contact, including neighbors, colleagues, acquaintances, or even strangers.
For most contact tracers, their job is a race against the clock. As soon as an infected person is identified, it’s the tracer’s responsibility to contact as many as possible, inform them of their potential exposure to COVID-19, and persuade them to quarantine for a brief period of time and get tested.
Contact tracers must confirm the identity of the person they call, but they’ll never ask for a Social Security number or credit card information. In most cases, they request an address and date of birth.
“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.
Legitimate contact tracing personnel will also meet these standards:
- Will never disclose the identity of the person who tested positive and became the starting place for the tracing effort
- Can immediately provide up-to-date testing locations, phone numbers and appointment information
- May ask you to provide names and phone numbers of everyone you came in close contact with while possibly infectious, so they can contact those people as well
Signs of a Contact Tracing Scam
Scams take many forms and evolve over time, but there’s one red flag that will always indicate the “contact tracer” on the other line isn’t legitimate: requesting payment information.
“That’s absolutely not part of the process,” stated Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “No one should ever give bank information or credit card information.”
For example, the Montana Attorney General Tim Fox detailed the techniques of fraudsters in his state. The scammer calls and says, “I’m calling from your local health department to let you know that you have been in contact with someone who has COVID-19.” This statement takes advantage of not just our fear and concern, but also our desire to help the pandemic response by cooperating in contact tracing efforts.
Once the scammer has the attention of his caller, he says he must verify Social Security number, date of birth, and method of payment before continuing. According to the Montana Department of Justice Office of Consumer Protection, “This is a sure sign that the call is a scam. Do not provide this information, and hang up the phone.”
“Contact tracing is an important part of managing the spread of COVID-19,” Fox said. “Unfortunately, there are scammers trying to profit from the confusion and fear surrounding the coronavirus. Don’t give out any financial information, and never pay someone who claims to be a contact tracer. Legitimate contact tracers will never ask for payment,” Fox added.