A crucial tool for controlling the spread of the coronavirus is contact tracing ― tracking down people who may have been exposed to COVID-19 and encouraging them to quarantine.
But as with any crisis, the pandemic presents an opportunity for scammers to prey on people’s fear and panic. Hence, contact-tracing scams are on the rise. A June 30 news release from the Department of Justice announced it was partnering with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Trade Commission to warn the public of this problem. States such as California and Montana, where scams have reportedly occurred, also issued their own warnings to residents.
If a contact tracer calls, emails or texts you, it’s imperative you respond and cooperate. So how do you tell the difference between a legitimate contact tracer and a scammer?
What is contact tracing?
According to the Federal Trade Commission, contact tracing is the “process of identifying people who have come in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, instructing them to quarantine and monitoring their symptoms daily.”
A contact tracer is the person who carries out this process. Tracers are usually hired by a state’s department of public health. If a person becomes infected with COVID-19, the contact tracer will get in touch with them to collect names and phone numbers of everyone that person potentially exposed. That information is then updated in an online database.
If you were exposed to the coronavirus through close contact with an infected person, a contact tracer may call you. It’s common for the health department to reach out by text first and let you know to expect a phone call. Once the contact tracer calls and collects the information they need from you, they may offer to enroll you in a text message program that sends alerts and reminders until your 14-day quarantine period is up.
Because contact tracing is crucial for identifying potentially infected people and slowing the spread of coronavirus, it’s important to answer a contact tracer’s call. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasized the need for trust and support of contact tracing by the general public: “Engagement of the public with case investigators and contact tracers must be widely accepted in order to protect friends, family, and community members from future potential infections.”
But what if you aren’t sure whether the person who called, emailed or texted you is who they say they are?
Signs Of A Contact-Tracing Scam
According to the FTC, there are certain types of information that a contact tracer will never request. If any of the following situations arise when dealing with a contact tracer, it’s probably a scam.
1. You’re prompted to click on a suspicious link.
Most often, contact tracers will get in touch with you via phone call. However, you may also receive an email or text. However, these text communications are only to let you know that a phone call is coming, according to the FTC.
One sign of a scam is a text message that requests the recipient to click a link. “Any request to click a link should be treated with suspicion,” said Matthew Fisher, an attorney who specializes in HIPAA and data privacy at the law firm Mirick O’Connell.
The same goes for emails. If you’re prompted to click a link, enter credentials or download any items, it’s a huge red flag.
“People should approach all unsolicited emails with caution, especially ones that request the user to act,” said Sherrod DeGrippo, senior director of threat research and detection at Proofpoint. She said cybercriminals will attempt to spoof email addresses and create fake websites with stolen branding from legitimate organizations to better fool people and get them to act.
DeGrippo recommended that if an email appears to come from a legitimate source, hover your mouse over any embedded links. If the link address looks weird or doesn’t take you to an official site, don’t click on it. You can also just go to the site directly by typing the official website address directly in the browser rather than through the link.
“Also, legitimate emails and sites usually do not have major spelling mistakes or poor grammar, so check the wording and layout before doing anything,” she said. “If something looks off, then don’t click, open or enter in any personal information.”
2. The contact tracer asks for money.
Contact tracing is a free service performed by state and local governments and the employees they hire. There is never any money exchanged between contact tracers and the people they contact. If a so-called contact tracer asks you for money, including cash, gift cards, wire transfer or cryptocurrency, the FTC warns, it’s a scam.
3. They ask for other sensitive personal information.
Even though contact tracers need to ask you some basic details such as your phone number, there’s no need to collect sensitive information such as account numbers or your Social Security number, Fisher noted: “A legitimate contact tracer does not want or need account information as that does not have a connection to infection risk.”
If they ask for this type of personal information, they’re likely attempting to steal your identity.
4. Your immigration status comes up.
Your immigration status has nothing to do with tracking the spread of COVID-19. That means a contact tracer will never ask about it. “If they do, you can bet it’s a scam,” the FTC writes.
How To Identify A Legitimate Contact Tracer
Though it’s important to answer a contact tracer’s call and cooperate with their instructions, you’re right to treat any unknown caller with suspicion. If you’re unsure about the person on the other end of the line, request their name, identification number and phone number so you can call them back after verifying who they are with your local health department.
If you believe you’ve been contacted by a scammer, Fisher said, you should report it to the Federal Trade Commission, or the attorney general or consumer protection agency in your state.
“Any of those recipients will be well-versed in handling complaints related to potential scams,” Fisher said.