WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials announced Tuesday that there has been an increase in contact tracing scams amid the COVID-19 pandemic, warning the public to be vigilant to prevent the theft of sensitive personal information and money.
The Department of Justice, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Federal Trade Commission have teamed up to warn people about fake contact tracing schemes meant to steal money and sensitive information from victims.
Contact tracing is a process that helps identify people who may have come into contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19. In order to do this, the individual who may be infected has to share personal information that could help lead those conducting the legitimate contact tracing to find out how many people an infected person has come in contact with.
Scammers are taking advantage of this opportunity to get personal information from an individual as well as possibly steal money, according to a DOJ news release.
The contact tracing scams often appear in the form of a text message or a phone call that requests private information, such as Social Security numbers, bank account information, credit card numbers and any other form of sensitive data.Sometimes the scammer will get straight to the point and ask for money, according to the DOJ.
“As cities and states start to reopen for business and implement contact tracing measures in their reopening plans, the Department of Justice remains committed to preventing, prosecuting, and punishing rogue actors who seek to exploit these safety efforts and who attempt to steal money and sensitive information from citizens,” said Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen.
“COVID-19 fraud is rapidly evolving. Operating contact tracing schemes is just one method that criminals use to target unsuspecting patients nationwide, attempting to steal their personal information and commit healthcare fraud,” said Health and Human Services Deputy Inspector General for Investigations Gary Cantrell. “We continue to work with our law enforcement partners to investigate and bring to justice those who exploit the ongoing public health crisis in order to enrich themselves.”
While contact tracing is becoming a common occurrence, Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, stated that an absolute red flag to watch out for is if whomever is conducting the contact tracing asks for money or sensitive information.
“You may receive a call, email, text or visit from a contact tracer, and you should not hesitate to talk with them,” Smith said. “But, beware if they ask you for money, bank account information, your Social Security number, or to click on a link, as those are sure signs of a scam.”
Contact tracers are usually hired by a state’s department of public health. They work with an infected person to get the names and phone numbers for everyone that the person came in close contact with while possibly sick with COVID-19.
Individual states conduct contact tracing differently, however. It is likely that if an individual was possibly in contact with an infected person, that individual will receive a phone call or text message from their local health department letting them know ahead of time that the will be receiving a possible separate call from a specific number to conduct the contact tracing.
The DOJ warned that scammers will often send fake links in emails or texts or call individuals pretending to conduct contact tracing. It is advised by the DOJ to ignore any foreign links in emails or texts to avoid any malware or giving scammers access to personal and financial information.
Anyone who has spotted a contact tracing scam or any fraud connected to COVID-19 can report it to the National Center for Disaster Fraud at 866-720-5721 or online at www.Justice.gov/DisasterComplaintForm or ftc.gov/complaint.
For more information on how to identify and report COVID-19 health care-related scams, visit the OIG COVID-19 Portal at www.OIG.HHS.gov.