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Seniors Beware: COVID-19 Scammers are Targeting You!

by Vivienne Duncan, Esq. August 21, 2020

Updated on April 30, 2021.

Vivienne Duncan is the director for the Cancer Advocacy and Elderlaw Projects.

While New York City was reeling from the deadly impact of the COVID-19 crisis, the scammers viewed the crisis as another opportunity to target seniors, finding new ways – or adapting old ones – to trick them into parting with their money or revealing valuable personal information. Many times, they find their victims in the same timeworn way –through unsolicited telephone calls.  Here are some of the current scams that you should look out for:

  • COVID-19 vaccine appointment: The caller knows that many people, especially seniors, have found it difficult to navigate the online vaccine system to make an appointment for a COVID vaccine and will offer to put your name on a vaccine waitlist or schedule your appointment – for a price. The caller may also claim that you must pay a fee for the vaccine. Fact: While some vaccination sites have created waiting lists for vaccinations, mostly for the benefit of seniors and others with serious health conditions, a legitimate site will not charge a fee to put your name on a waitlist. Any offer that is made by a stranger to schedule an appointment for a price in an unsolicited call, is a scam. Remember that you do not have to pay for the COVID-19 vaccination whether or not you have medical insurance.
  • Decontaminating your home: The caller will try to persuade you that your home is filled with coronavirus-contaminated surfaces and offer to disinfect or ‘decontaminate’ it for you – for a price.  Scammers may also offer to sell you an air purifier for an inflated price. Fact:  A legitimate cleaning company would not make this kind of random call. Hang up and do not continue with the call. It would not be wise to invite someone who contacts you in this way into your home. If you want to deep clean your home, ask trusted friends for a personal recommendation or look for a reputable company yourself.  Similarly, although circulating air by opening windows and using fans should be sufficient, if you decide to buy an air purifier, seek advice from a trustworthy friend or reputable retailer.
  • Free COVID-19 test kits: The caller offers you free home test kits then asks for your bank account details or to ‘verify’ your Social Security number.  Or they offer you low-cost life or health insurance – sometimes with a COVID-19 test kit thrown in as a ‘free gift’. Fact: No one who provides COVID-19 test kits will cold-call you to sell them to you. At this time, only a few home test kits have been authorized by the FDA. If you would like to purchase an at home kit, make sure to get it from a reputable source that is FDA authorized. You can also get tested for the coronavirus at a clinic or other testing site.  Call 311 for further information.
  • Contact tracing: The caller claims to be a contract tracer and tells you that you may have been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, before asking for your personal details such as your Medicare or Social Security number, or financial information. Fact: Do not share this type of information just because the caller claims to be a contact tracer. A legitimate contact tracer would not ask you for that information.
  • Stimulus Checks: The scammer claims that your check may be suspended or decreased if you do not immediately ‘verify’ your bank account details. Fact: By now, most individuals who are eligible for this payment will have received it, but some checks are still being sent out.  Do not give your financial details to these callers; no government office would call you to demand information in this way.
  • Family emergency: You receive a call from someone claiming to be a doctor or hospital worker and then demands money for providing medical care to your relative or friend. Or the scammer may pretend to be related to you and suffering from coronavirus, before asking for your help to pay their medical bills. The caller may even know the name of your relative or friend. Fact:  Do not panic and give them any money.  Hang up and call your relative or friend directly to check the story. The scammer may have learned about your relationship with that person by hacking into your, or their, social media account, such as Facebook.

Although scammers have invented new tricks or ‘rebranded’ old ones to take advantage of the current situation, seniors should remain alert to the common scams that continue to circulate alongside the COVID-19-related efforts to steal your money or personal information. Remain vigilant against these persistent cons:

  • IRS scams (claims to be calling from the IRS and accuses you of owing back taxes and threatening to take your home or Social Security unless you pay the ‘debt’ immediately.)
  • Internet fraud (claims to be calling from Windows or Apple and asking for access to your computer to ‘remove a virus’)
  • Sweepstakes scams (claims that you have won the sweepstakes – but you must first pay a fee)
  • Telemarketing and phone scams (caller offers to sell you something and asks for your credit card details)

Bottom line: Whenever you receive an unsolicited call offering to sell you a product or service, or requesting money or personal information – even if presented as being related to COVID-19, do not provide any information.  Hang up!  If you do need to contact a government office or to purchase an item or service, do your own research or ask a trusted friend to help you to make contact or find a reputable company, in a safe way.

If You Suspect You Have Been Scammed

If you or someone you know has been the victim of elder fraud, it is important to file a police report with your local police department.  It is also a good idea to go over credit card and bank statements to check for suspicious activity. People with elderly and at-risk family members or friends can help to prevent further harm by alerting credit card companies or financial institutions of signs of fraud.  Make family and friends aware of these scams.

Remember, staying educated and informed is the best way to protect against elder fraud and financial abuse.

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