How to Spot a COVID-19 Vaccine Scam

Scammers are targeting people using an email “survey” about the COVID-19 vaccine. Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The current pandemic has provided scammers new opportunities to defraud the public. The lates…

Scammers are targeting people using an email “survey” about the COVID-19 vaccine. Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
  • The current pandemic has provided scammers new opportunities to defraud the public. The latest one is a fake COVID-19 vaccine “survey.”
  • Experts say it’s illegal to buy vaccines or a vaccination card privately — and there can be legal consequences for doing so.
  • They also say that you should be wary of any communication about the pandemic that doesn’t come from a recognized, official source, like the American Medical Association and others.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is warning Americans about reports received from across the country of a vaccine survey scam.

“No legitimate surveys ask for your credit card or bank account number to pay for a ‘free’ reward,” the FTC cautioned.

According to the FTC, people have reported receiving unsolicited emails and texts asking them to complete a limited-time survey about one of the available COVID-19 vaccines.

In exchange, people are offered a free reward — but asked to pay shipping fees.

“The COVID-19 vaccine provides scammers with a new angle on an old trick called the survey scam,” Adam Levin, founder of CyberScout and co-founder of Credit.com, told Healthline.

“We all like to help and [think] that our experiences have value. Unfortunately, our personal information does have value to scammers, and they also want our money,” he said.

FTC issues warning about COVID-19 scammers

It’s a sad fact that scammers will pounce on any opportunity to make money in the midst of the worldwide COVID-19 crisis.

The fear and uncertainty we feel as we navigate our lives through the pandemic can make us easy targets.

According to the FTC, COVID-19-related scams include:

  • companies claiming to sell cures or treatments for COVID-19
  • phishing emails, which are emails that include links that could compromise your personal information or contain computer viruses
  • ads for coronavirus test kits
  • emails claiming to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or World Health Organization (WHO)

A particularly widespread scam involves receiving an automated message called a robocall. They're illegal to make, and can pitch anything from low-priced health insurance to work-at-home schemes.

“If someone asks you personal information, just don't,” Levin said. “Especially if the request comes from an unknown and/or unsolicited source online.”

He explained that it doesn’t matter whether it’s a survey, personality quiz, or social media post: Any information you provide can be used to commit fraud and identity theft.

Email scams

According to the WHO, hackers and cyber scammers are taking advantage of the pandemic by sending fraudulent email and WhatsApp messages in an attempt to trick you into clicking on malicious links or opening attachments.

“Use caution with emails related to COVID-19 surveys,” warned Dr. Murat Kantarcioglu, a cybersecurity expert at The University of Texas at Dallas. He advises not to click on links from sources you don’t know.

Kantarcioglu added that this email survey could be used as a part of a scam to try to deceive desperate people, and for this reason, “using government sites to find legitimate vaccination locations and registries is important.”

The WHO added that there have been some reported cases of people fraudulently presenting themselves as from the WHO or the WHO's COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, even going so far as to send invoices requesting payment on behalf of the response fund.

“WHO, the UN Foundation, or the Swiss Philanthropy Foundation will never contact you for your credit card or banking details,” emphasized the WHO.

Verify whether any communication from the WHO is legit by contacting them directly here.

Contact tracing scams

Contact tracing is a critical way to identify potential “superspreader” events and reduce disease transmission.

It’s also an ideal opportunity for scammers.

The FTC offers the following advice to avoid contact tracing scams:

  • Real contact tracers will not ask for money.
  • Contact tracers will not ask about your immigration status.
  • Genuine contact tracers won’t ask for your financial information or social security number.

“Contact tracing is just about finding out who you were in contact with, and it has nothing to do with health insurance or financial information,” said Theodore Strange, MD, interim chair of medicine at Staten Island University Hospital in New York.

Warning signs that you’re being scammed

There are simple warning signs you can look out for to protect yourself from COVID-19 scammers.

“I think anybody that’s asking for your private information is the first warning sign,” Strange said. “In any circumstance you should never give out any private information.”

He emphasized that unless you’re being contacted by a major, reputable medical source, like the American Medical Association (AMA) or a major college, “it’s probably not a lawful source.”

You cannot legally buy COVID-19 vaccines or vaccination cards

When asked whether it’s possible to legally acquire a COVID-19 vaccine dose through unofficial channels, Strange said it’s illegal, and pointed out that in cases where this has occurred, people have been caught and faced legal consequences.

Regarding offers to purchase “black market” vaccination cards, Strange said that while he hasn’t heard of it happening yet, he’s sure it will.

Vaccination card fraud can present a “danger to the society and a public risk,” he said.

If you think you’ve been scammed

Scammers are extremely good at what they do, and we all make mistakes.

If you suspect that you’ve been scammed, the U.S. Office of Inspector General advises you to contact them and report it at this link.

You can also report COVID-19-related fraud to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.

Scammers also target personal information to claim pandemic unemployment benefits.

In response, the U.S. Labor Department has launched a website to help Americans who have had their personal data stolen and used to claim fraudulent benefits.

The bottom line

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided scammers new opportunities to defraud the public. The latest one is a fake COVID-19 vaccine “survey.”

The FTC says to watch out for warning signs including asking for money or personal financial information.

Experts say it’s illegal to buy vaccines or vaccination cards privately — and there can be legal consequences for doing so.

They also say that you should be wary of any communication about the pandemic that doesn’t come from a recognized, official source, like the American Medical Association and others.