ROCKVILLE, Md. — The COVID vaccine scammers seem to be mutating faster than the virus.
Consumer advocates are warning that tricksters are pushing fake or stolen vaccines, and offering the promise of a vaccine or a chance to jump the line in hopes of getting into your wallet.
In Florida, a gutsy great-grandmother named Janice Gach wasn't about to be taken when a scam artist called her home phone.
"I was just expecting the phone call to come back from the state, because they had my phone number," Gach said.
When the caller promised her an appointment but asked her how to spell her last name, she figured it must be a scam because the state already had her last name in the system.
"When someone calls you on the phone, be very suspicious and don't give out any information," she said.
In Minneapolis, Susan Esquivel got a call promising her a COVD vaccine if she acted quickly.
"I thought this sounds really weird, but I'm going to listen to more of it," she said.
In our region, experts and victims warn the scammers are out, trying to take advantage of people looking to get vaccinated.
"These crooks are so clever, that their tricks, mutate faster than the vaccine," Eric Friedman, director of Montgomery County's Office of Consumer Protection, said. "So they come up with new tricks one after another after another."
Investigators from the Digital Citizens Alliance found sellers on Facebook offering an unapproved vaccine produced in China by Sinovac for $175. Even after paying up, all they got was a letter asking for more money.
"There are criminals and scammers who are preying on Americans who are desperate to get the vaccine," Tom Galvin of Digital Citizens Alliance, said.
Consumer advocates say the scammers are using phone calls, texts and emails, looking for money, Social Security numbers, credit card and bank information.
"We wear a mask to protect ourselves, so we have to protect ourselves when we're on our computers as well, just like they tell us to wash our hands for 20 seconds," Friedman said. "Look at the email message for 20 seconds, and before you click."
The Federal Trade Commission says any offer to sell you the vaccine or a chance to jump the line is a scam. The vaccine is free -- and you should only sign up for an appointment from a trusted source.
Here are some other tips from the F.T.C. to keep you and your family safe:
- Contact a trusted source for information. Check with state or local health departments to learn when and how to get the COVID-19 vaccine. You can also talk with your health care provider or pharmacist.
- Don’t pay to sign up for the vaccine. Anyone who asks for a payment to put you on a list, make an appointment for you, or reserve a spot in line is a scammer.
- Ignore sales ads for the COVID-19 vaccine. You can’t buy it – anywhere. The vaccine is only available at federal- and state-approved locations.
- Watch for unexpected or unusual texts. If your health care provider or pharmacist has used text messages to contact you in the past, you might get a text from them about the vaccine. If you get a text, call your health care provider or pharmacist directly to make sure they sent the text. But scammers are texting, too. So don’t click on links in text messages – especially messages you didn’t expect.
- Don’t open emails, attachments, or links from people you don’t know, or that come unexpectedly. You could download dangerous malware onto your computer or phone.
- Don’t share your personal, financial, or health information with people you don’t know. No one from a vaccine distribution site, health care provider’s office, pharmacy, or health care payer, like a private insurance company or Medicare, will call, text, or email you asking for your Social Security, credit card, or bank account number to sign you up to get the vaccine.