What’s Out There and How to Protect Yourself
By Karen Joy Fletcher
One thing constant about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is: what we know about it keeps changing. As a moving target, guidance on how we respond to it also changes. With so much uncertainty, COVID-19 case numbers and unemployment continuing to rise, and with older adults and people of color shouldering a huge disparate burden of the mortality, fear is high. This type of environment creates a situation ripe for fraud. It makes people vulnerable to scams that offer welcomed messages of protection, solutions and treatments for COVID-19. Below is a discussion of various types of COVID-19 scams out there, including specific examples, followed by tips on how to protect yourself and loved ones and where to report suspected fraud.
Sample calls from our helpline
Every week we get reports of COVID-19 scams coming into our California Senior Medicare Patrol (SMP) helpline. And they are getting increasingly creative. Here are a few recent examples:
Lorina received a call from a friendly woman offering a free COVID-19 testing kit. As getting tested is not always easy, Lorina thought this was a great offer. She could have a kit and do the test at home, and/or offer it to family members. The caller said she was happy to send it; she just needed Lorina’s date of birth, Social Security number, and Medicare number. Lorina gave it to her, and was going to ask a few clarifying questions when the caller abruptly hung up. Two weeks later, when reading her senior residence newsletter, Lorina saw a fraud alert from our California SMP about COVID-19 testing kit scams. She immediately knew she had probably been scammed and gave us a call.
Another example is from a woman, Fay. Fay received a phone call from Kevin who claimed to be from Medicare. He said he already had her Medicare number, which assured Fay that he was a legitimate Medicare representative. He offered her a free COVID-19 test kit and said all he needed was her Social Security number to verify her eligibility, which Fay gave him. Fay also then made sure Kevin “from Medicare” had her sister’s phone number so she too could get a test kit. As they were wrapping up the call, Kevin said, “By the way, do you have arthritis, sleep apnea or need oxygen? If so, just tell me. You know we can get you anything you need covered by Medicare.” This last statement was a red flag for fraud and Fay then called our office to inquire if this was a scam.
In a third example, we got a call from a woman, Sheila. Sheila was with her mom when her mom’s doctor called. It wasn’t her primary care doctor, but a doctor she had 15 years ago for hip surgery. He explained he was doing some telehealth calls during COVID-19 to check on patients. Sheila’s mom took his call. After not much more than a “Hi. How are you doing?” the phone call was complete. Sheila didn’t think much of it until a few weeks later, when her mom received a bill for $180. Upon calling the doctor’s office to dispute the charge, they said it must have been a “billing error” and to disregard the charge. Hmmm….was it really an error, or a deliberate attempt to scam a senior of $180 during the COVID pandemic?
These are just three case examples of many we receive each week. A few other examples we’ve heard of from our SMP partners around the country include:
- Legitimate-looking emails that claim a person’s Amazon account is suspended due to COVID-19. The email says the account will be closed if a $39 renewal fee is not received.
- An imposter scam where someone calls as a “grandchild” needing money because he/she is stuck in Philadelphia (or somewhere else) because of the virus, or a “friend” is stuck in Italy due to COVID-19 and needs money or Google Play gift cards.
- A doctor scam where scammers contact people by phone and email pretending to be a doctor or hospital who treated a relative for COVID-19. They then demand payment for that treatment.
In Florida, we also recently heard of seniors being offered bogus federal stay-at-home grants worth thousands of dollars each, supposedly to prevent the spread of COVID-19. To do this, an international network of scammers are hacking Facebook accounts to send seniors messages from friends’ profiles. This creates the illusion that a friendly acquaintance is promoting the bogus grants. Once contact is made, the scammers request personal information, insurance payments and bank account numbers. This, they say, will ensure “safe delivery of the federal grant money.” Yet, of course, the money never arrives.
Text, email and website COVID-19 scams to be aware of
Have you received any COVID-related texts? These scams also play on the fear and concern of trusting people, sending urgent text messages such as: “Love your family Michael? Buy your own COVID test kit now. The demand is extremely high so hurry up!” Upon reading this, who wouldn’t feel an urgency to act?
Email scams are similar. For example, one email reported to us had a subject heading: “Coronavirus Pandemic Survival Guide – Save Yourself and family. One sneeze on you is all it takes.” In other email scams, fraudsters “offer” items in high demand, such as personal protective equipment, making claims like: “We are a medical appliance supplier in China offering personal protective equipment … and other necessary medical supplies.”
Other email scams appear to be from legitimate organizations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), yet they may contain links to malicious websites offering “COVID-19 maps” that download malware.
To avoid these types of text, email and website scams, tell clients to be leery of any calls to action that evoke fear and urgency. They should avoid clicking on any suspicious links or web pages, especially when surfing the web. Phishing scams can happen at any time. Always take caution with any electronic form of communication that has COVID-19 in the subject line, or on the attachment, or on the links.
Contact tracing scams
In addition to the scams discussed, another new scam is contact tracing scams. In these scams, fraudsters may attempt to contact people while posing as COVID-19 contact tracers. They will ask for personal information, such as Social Security numbers or banking information. Of course, nobody should give this info to them.
Contract tracing is an important tool to fight the spread of the virus. It enables local public health departments to track down people who may have come into contact with the coronavirus without being aware of doing so, and allows them to then take proper precautions. Contact tracers will ask for medical symptoms and about anyone with whom you’ve had contact. They will NOT ask for personal financial information or your Social Security number.
If anyone asks you for personal information and claims to be a contact tracer, the best response is to hang up. This is a scam.
COVID-19 stimulus check scams
While many people have received their stimulus checks from the government, those who haven’t could potentially fall for one of these scams. Some of them include emails that state things like: “Give us your bank account number for direct deposit,” or “The IRS sent you an overpayment,” and you must “send the money back in cash or gift cards.” Some emails appear to come from your bank account asking for additional information to process it. These are all scams. The IRS will never ask for cash or money in the form of gift cards. And the IRS will never call, text or email and ask for personal information or financial information.
We’ve also been hearing reports of nursing home facilities requiring residents on Medicaid to sign over their stimulus payments to the facility. This is illegal. These stimulus checks are a tax credit; neither the government nor nursing homes or assisted living facilities can seize it.
What you can do to protect yourself and loved ones
The main thing is to be aware of the COVID-19 scams out there and exercise caution. If an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. If an offer or statement induces fear and/or a sense of urgency, it is likely a scam. If someone is calling or emailing to ask for money or personal information while claiming to be from a government entity, it is a scam.
If you come across any suspected scam, report it to our California Senior Medicare Patrol at 1-855-613-7070. Please share this information. May you and your loved ones stay safe and be well.
Karen Joy Fletcher, MPH, has more than 20 years of experience in Medicare training, education and advocacy and has served as California Health Advocate’s (CHA) publications consultant since 2004. She is the primary researcher, writer and editor of CHA’s website content, including CHA’s newsletter and blog (https://cahealthadvocates.org/blog/). She also develops and revises key educational materials, spearheads CHA’s social media and chairs the Senior Medicare Patrol Media Team and SMP superheroes skit team.
In addition to her Medicare advocacy work, Karen teaches Earth gym and Qigong at schools, conferences, festivals and retreat centers around the country and abroad, and co-leads Qigong & Wilderness retreat trips in China. She also enjoys ample nature and family time in the Cascadian forests and mountains. www.karenjoyfletcher.com