Be on the lookout for vaccine scams

Is your appointment for the shot the real deal?

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Metro | Published February 22, 2021

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METRO DETROIT — Scammers have no shame.

Law enforcement agencies continue to report solicitation schemes and identity theft rackets from ill-intentioned folks taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those scams are a lot like the virus itself: We’re all vulnerable, but older people are at an especially high risk.

That’s according to Melanie Duquesnel, the president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Eastern Michigan. She said crooks are always a step ahead of the good guys, and even experts in fraud detection can fall for a scheme they haven’t seen before.

“I have been a part of the Office of Personal Management for some time, and a federal employee for 20-plus years before that. I’ve had my tax returns hacked; my credit and debit cards have been hacked. I’ve been through the gamut,” Duquesnel said. “It still happens.”

As the country continues to ramp up the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, some residents have received calls, social media ads or emails promising to bump them to the top of the vaccine waiting list. In some cases, the scammer is just looking to collect a hefty fee for a service that will never come.  

She even cited an example in Washington state in which a man was arrested for flying all over the United States to administer a snake oil “vaccine” for $1,000 a pop.

Other cases, though, are even more severe.

“My mother was getting these calls from someone asking for her Medicare information, telling her it was for a free COVID-19 test,” she said. “I don’t know of any county that is charging for their COVID tests. And if you try to say you’re not interested, they instill some fear in (the victim). ‘We know you’re of a certain age. You should really have this done.’ It’s hideous.”

Even if you don’t lose money directly to a COVID-19 vaccine scammer, your personal information can be used to attain lines of credit in your name or possibly to bill your Medicare or insurance providers for treatments you didn’t receive. That could result in big bucks for them and a huge mess to clean up for you.

In metro Detroit, there are several ways to sign up for a vaccine, from local hospitals and pharmacy chains to the county health department. So how are people supposed to know when they’re being contacted by a scammer for a vaccine that will never come or a legitimate opportunity to get the shot?

For one, be skeptical of anyone asking for payment. The FBI states on its website that, though the COVID-19 vaccine is being distributed through different channels and some providers may choose to charge for an office visit, there is no cost for the shot itself. Even if you’re uninsured.

The Oakland County Health Division does not charge for vaccine appointments or doses, and county officials have heard reports from residents who said they’ve been contacted about paying for an appointment — or even falsely being told that they’re required to get one.

“Oakland County will never ask for any financial information, including credit card or Social Security numbers,” Leigh-Anne Stafford, the health officer for Oakland County, said in a prepared statement. “If you are unsure if it is a scam, avoid sharing any personal information over the phone and report it to the authorities.”

Insurance information might be requested from some private medical providers, though. That’s true for Beaumont Health System, for example, which confirmed in a prepared statement that vaccine scheduling invitations will direct them to how they can sign up for an appointment, and they may be asked for insurance details. Beaumont is using its online patient portal as an automatic queue for the shot.

“Patients who are signed up through myBeaumont chart will receive an email notifying them they are eligible to schedule their vaccine, with a link and instructions of how to schedule,” the statement reads. “As with any medical appointment, Beaumont will collect typical personal and insurance information. Patients who do not have insurance will not be asked to pay out-of-pocket for the cost.”

Stafford said residents can thwart fraudsters by making a list of contact information for family members, close friends and, in particular, health care providers — anyone who might call regularly. That will help people to determine if the call is legitimate.

Duquesnel said residents should always be comfortable asking questions to vet swindlers. She said there’s no reason to verify a date of birth, insurance information or more than four digits of a Social Security number to book an appointment. There is certainly no reason for anyone to collect a credit card number.

“Do a lot of questioning: ‘How’d you get my name?’” she said. “If they’re calling because you signed up for a vaccine, they should have your personal information. They shouldn’t be asking you for anything. If they say they have to verify who you are — nope. Oh no, they do not.”

Or, Stafford added, there’s no harm in simply ignoring calls from numbers you don’t know. Scammers rarely leave voicemail messages, and you won’t lose your opportunity for a shot by taking a few extra minutes to protect yourself.

If you believe you’ve been contacted by a scammer, you can always call your local law enforcement for assistance. The FBI, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are also taking complaints online at tips.fbi.gov.

Oakland County residents can report scam calls by calling the non-emergency number of their municipal police department or the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office at (248) 858-5000.

To sign up for the Oakland County Health Division’s waitlist for the COVID-19 vaccine, visit oaklandcountyvaccine.com and click the link to “Save Your Spot.” You can also text OAKGOV COVID to 468311.