COVID Fraud Is on the Rise. Here's How to Spot a Scam

A blank COVID-19 vaccination record card on top of two $100 bills.

JJ Gouin/Getty

Key Takeaways

  • Phone and online scams have been on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic. The fraud has infiltrated everything from vaccines to contact tracing.
  • COVID-19 vaccines are free. You cannot buy the COVID-19 vaccine anywhere. It’s only available at federal- and state-approved locations. If anyone charges you for help signing up or the shot itself, it’s a scam.
  • Do not post your vaccination card on your social media accounts. Your information could be used for identity theft or to create forged cards for people who have not been vaccinated. If someone asks you for personal information or money to get a national vaccine certificate or passport, it's a scam.

On August 6, the World Health Organization (WHO) sent out an advisory warning the public to be wary of fraudulent letters that promised a $1 million pandemic-related lottery prize from the WHO, the International Monetary Fund, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

While troubling, the announcement did not come as a surprise to law enforcement, investigative agencies, and consumer groups in the United States. In fact, the U.S. Justice Department has a webpage dedicated to news about fraud related to the pandemic.

“The volume of scams has blown up since the beginning of the pandemic,” Kathy Stokes, director of fraud prevention for AARP’s Fraud Watch Network, tells Verywell. 

Here's what you need to know about COVID-related scams, including how to spot one and what you can do to protect yourself.

Scams on the Rise

In testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in April, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported since the start of the pandemic, the agency has filed more than a dozen law enforcement actions directed at the removal of deceptive claims made by over 350 companies.

The FTC has also issued more than 100 alerts educating consumers and businesses about recognizing and avoiding COVID scams.

Fraud experts say that perpetrators have unleashed all sorts of scams related to the pandemic including: 

  • Selling COVID-19 vaccines (authorized vaccines are free to everyone)
  • Sale of unproven products that claim to treat or cure COVID and/or fraudulent offers to invest in companies peddling such products

Contact Tracing and Vaccination Card Scams 

Some COVID-related scams are going beyond individuals and are threatening public health—for example, calls from bogus contact tracers and offers of forged vaccination cards falsely indicating that someone has been vaccinated.

Fake Contact Tracers

“As COVID-19 cases surge because of the Delta variant, legitimate contact tracing is increasing which means people have to be aware of these potential scams,” Marcus Plescia, MD, MPH, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers, tells Verywell. 

On the agency's website, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reassures the public that “during contact tracing—calls by trained individuals to people who may have been exposed to COVID-19—[callers] will not ask you for money, your social security number, bank account information, salary information, or credit card numbers."

However, the FTC has found that scammers have asked for all of the above—as well as immigration status, which is not a question permitted to be asked by legitimate contact tracers. 

The FTC's website reminds people that if a real contact tracer calls them, they should talk to them to help stop the spread of COVID. However, if they find out they have been called by someone who is only pretending to be a contact tracer, reporting the fraud to the FTC will help stop make sure that others do not get scammed.

Vaccine Cards for Sale

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) warns people never to buy a vaccine card, make their own vaccine card, or fill a blank card with false information.

Matthew Charette, a special agent with the OIG’s office, tells Verywell that official COVID-19 vaccine cards have the HHS seal and the CDC's logo, “making forging and/or using forged cards potential crimes.” 

Charette is concerned that that vaccination card scams will proliferate. “Common sense says that as private and public demand that people be vaccinated increases, I’m certain there will continue to be a market for vaccination cards for people who choose not to be vaccinated," Charette says.

Kathy Stokes

People who understand the tactics are 80% less likely to engage with the caller and 40% less likely to lose money or identification if they do.

— Kathy Stokes

To help reduce forgeries, Charette says that people should not post their legitimate vaccination cards on social media.

Plescia adds that "for now we don’t have verified documentation about COVID vaccination—like a driver’s license or travel passport—and the contentiousness of that remains concerning. If we are going to have a requirement for vaccination, many people will look to government agencies to provide more security for the vaccine card system.” 

Lying About Vaccination Status

As the CDC has changed its pandemic safety recommendations for both people who are vaccinated and unvaccinated, Plescia points out that "people who falsely say they have been vaccinated add one more reason for everyone to take precautions such as indoor masking and distancing. We have to retain a continued level of vigilance even if you have been vaccinated.” 

Giving people alternatives—such as face masks and testing rather than a vaccine requirement—could reduce the potential for fraud. “Otherwise, we could end up with a false sense of security about coworkers if someone is not being truthful," says Plescia.

Keep Your Information Safe

According to the HHS OIG, even an offer of vaccination might be a scam. The agency's website implores the public to be wary of who they provide personal, medical, and financial information to, and that they should only obtain vaccines from trusted providers.

If you are called by someone claiming to be conducting a COVID-related survey and the caller asks you for personal, medical, or financial information or offers money or gifts in exchange for your participation, hang up.

Vsafe—the CDC registry tracking side effects and offering second dose reminders—only asks for your email address and type and date of your first COVID-19 vaccine dose. It will not ask for other personal identification or financial information.

Signs of a Scam

Scammers often work hard to make their scams convincing. There are, however, a couple of red flags that you can be on the lookout for.

  • Fees for claiming prizes. Federal law prohibits charging the winners of prizes, lotteries, or sweepstakes a fee in order to collect their winnings. Stokes says "it’s a tipoff of a scam if you’re asked for cash, gift cards, a credit card, or any other form of payment in order to collect anything you’re told you’ve won."
  • Unknown callers. Let a call go to voicemail if you do not recognize the number. You should also register your phone number (or numbers) with the FTC’s “do not call registry," which Stokes says “keeps telemarketers without a previous relationship with you from calling which means calls that do get through from people you don’t know are more likely to be scams."

Stokes advises consumers to read up on scams (for example, on AARP’s Fraud Watch Network site) because "people who understand the tactics are 80% less likely to engage with the caller and 40% less likely to lose money or identification if they do."

Protecting Yourself Online

Many scams are conducted over social media in addition to phone calls, according to the FBI. There are several ways you can reduce your risk of becoming a COVID-19 social media scam victim: 

  • Verify the spelling of web addresses, websites; sites that look trustworthy could be imitations of legitimate websites (for example, federal agencies have websites ending in .gov, but counterfeit versions may end in .org)
  • Make sure your computer operating systems and applications are updated to the most current versions
  • Update your anti-malware and anti-virus software and conduct regular network scans
  • Disable or remove unnecessary software applications
  • Do not communicate with or open emails, attachments, or links from unknown people
  • Never provide personal information via email (even if the emails requesting your personal information appear legitimate)

Reporting a Scam

Stokes, Charette, and all U.S. law enforcement agencies urge anyone who has been contacted by someone that they think is a scammer or has been a victim of a scam to report the incident to the National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline or HHS OIG.

“Expect empathetic operators when you call and although it’s unlikely you will get any money back you’ve given to the scammers, your report could keep criminals from preying on someone else,” Stokes says. 

What This Mean For You

Scams and fraud have been on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are ways to make sure that you do not become a victim.

The best way to protect yourself is to be wary of making your personal and/or financial information readily available to others. For example, do not post your COVID vaccine record card to your social media profiles and hang up on any callers who offer you money or gifts in exchange for participating in a COVID-related survey.

If you are contacted by someone who you think is a scammer or you get scammed, report the fraud to the FTC.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Fran Kritz
Fran Kritz is a freelance healthcare reporter with a focus on consumer health and health policy. She is a former staff writer for Forbes Magazine and U.S. News and World Report.