Scammers Seize on Frustration, Chaos of Vaccine Rollout

By: - February 11, 2021 12:00 am

Allegheny Health Network employees give COVID-19 vaccines at a clinic at Pittsburgh Pirates PNC Park. Vaccine scam artists are offering false hope to people desperate for vaccines after nearly a year in quarantine. Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via The Associated Press

The note on a Washington, D.C., apartment building’s online message board looked enticing: “Anyone want a COVID vaccine? I have an extra Pfizer. Minimal side effects. I’m an RN. OBO.”

People in Chicago are reporting phone calls offering a vaccine appointment—if they provide a prepaid gift card, their Social Security number and other personal information.

And in Colorado, scammers are using party invitation software and sites on the dark web to offer phony vaccine appointments—for a small fee, of course.

Americans are desperate to get COVID-19 vaccines, but supplies are scarce and the distribution has been chaotic and confusing. That combination has created a huge opportunity for scammers who want to part customers from their money or personal information.

“We’re starting to get more and more reports [of fraud],” Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, a Democrat, said in a phone interview. “These scammers’ goal is to prey on your hopes and fears. They are trying to get you to give up information or money.”

Vaccines are generally only available at special locations set up by state or local governments, pharmacies, grocery stores and medical facilities. In most places, people must make an appointment online.

Fake websites are tailored to look genuine, and telephone calls peddling scam vaccines can clone phone numbers so that the caller ID comes up looking legitimate, Weiser said. In addition, public education campaigns designed to get people to pick up calls from COVID-19 contact tracers can create further confusion, he acknowledged.

The best thing to do if you get a call, text, email or unsolicited invitation to go to a website for vaccines is to call the agency purporting to offer the shot to see if it is real, experts say. But long waits on phone lines can be a disincentive to getting authentic information, leading some unsuspecting people to just sign up anyway.

A 32-year-old lawyer who works on Capitol Hill in the health policy area, who did not want to be further identified, wasn’t sure at first whether a vaccine offer was legal. She saw the posting on her apartment building’s message board soliciting for a Pfizer vaccine.

“I thought it was really strange,” she said in a telephone interview. “I work in health policy, but I didn’t know if this was legal. I thought, ‘This is sketchy and it bothers me. It seems unethical, but maybe it’s not illegal.’”

The day after she saw the ad, she called the city health department, which passed her information along to the Metropolitan Police. A detective who showed up at the apartment building to interview her and other residents confirmed her suspicions. The lawyer worries that if a person with her background could be unsure if an offer was real, many others—especially older adults—could be fooled.

“Me, a lawyer working in health policy—if I didn’t realize [at first] it was illegal, how is the average American supposed to realize this is unethical and maybe illegal?”

The post has since been removed and the phone number to call has been disconnected. No arrests have been made, Metropolitan Police Public Information Officer Sean Hickman said in an email.

Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, director of the D.C. department of health, said at a news conference last week that consumers should know that only medical facilities, pharmacies or D.C.-sponsored vaccination sites are authorized to provide vaccines. “There are no off-site sales of vaccines,” she said. “No one will have to purchase a vaccine. If you see these types of scams or are contacted and given an offer to purchase vaccines, please report it to the D.C. police department.”

Across the nation, the FBI and other federal agencies are warning against many kinds of scams, including advertisements that promise “early access” to a vaccine or placement on a waiting list for a fee. In other cases, people have received unsolicited emails requesting their personal information so they can get the shot.

Meanwhile, state health departments are monitoring facilities to ensure they follow vaccination rules. In New York, for example, state officials are investigating the ParCare Community Health Network for allegedly obtaining COVID-19 vaccines under false pretenses and transferring them to other facilities, in violation of state guidelines. The health network also allegedly provided vaccines to the general public, violating a state directive to administer them first to frontline health care workers.

“We take this very seriously and DOH will be assisting State Police in a criminal investigation into this matter. Anyone found to have knowingly participated in this scheme will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law,” the department said in a statement.

In Seattle, a man purporting to be a biotech executive was arrested and charged with trying to peddle a fake COVID-19 vaccine, according to U.S. Attorney Brian Moran. In a statement in late January, Moran said Johnny Stine, 55, was offering to inject customers for between and ,000 each. “Preying on our fears in the midst of this pandemic is unconscionable,” Moran said. “DOJ continues to investigate and prosecute these fraud cases.”

At a news conference earlier this month, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice warned residents not to share pictures of their COVID-19 vaccination cards on social media. “It makes it easier for scammers to make imitation cards that they can sell, steal or [obtain] your personal information,” the Republican said.

In Florida, Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody also issued a vaccine card warning, adding that the information could be used to “hack online accounts or commit identity fraud.”

“I’ve never seen so many scams,” said Chicago Better Business Bureau President Steve Bernas, who noted that since so many people are desperate for the vaccine, the number of potential victims is huge. “It’s not like a tornado or another disaster that affects only a limited group of people,” he said.

One woman told Bernas that she got a call from someone who offered to come to her house to vaccinate her for . “She said, ‘They could have told me anything—I would have driven to California for the vaccine,’” Bernas recalled.

“When people are desperate, they let their guard down,” he said. “The tipoff to the rip-off is that no one can get you into line faster. Scammers are saying they have a secret way of getting you into line fast.”

Bernas and other experts cautioned that older adults are more susceptible to the scams, in part because they are the ones most likely to die from the virus.

AARP, a nonprofit that advocates for older adults, has posted warnings on its website about the scams. “We get a lot of questions of whether the things people are clicking on are legit,” Amy Nofziger, director of the AARP Fraud Watch Network, said in a phone interview.

Like Justice in West Virginia, AARP and other organizations are warning people not to share their vaccine records on social media. There’s just enough personal information on those official records—name, birthdate and vaccine type—to give scammers an opportunity. They could use it to persuade a victim to trust them, since they know a bit about the victim.

“Anyone asking for money is a huge red flag. Listen to the health department. Don’t let it be a DM on Instagram,” Nofziger said.

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Elaine S. Povich
Elaine S. Povich

Elaine S. Povich covers consumer affairs for Stateline. Povich has reported for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and United Press International.