Debt Relief Scams

When debt seems like a hole you’ll never climb out of, an offer promising to settle your liabilities for pennies on the dollar can be tempting. But proceed with care: Some debt relief offers will line a scammer’s pockets while digging you a deeper financial hole.
  
How it Works
Scam debt relief offers promise “guarantees” to get you out of debt quickly and cleanly.•They ask you to pay advance and ongoing fees for the “services” they provide.•They offer to enroll you in a debt relief program without reviewing your financial situation with you.•They might tell you to stop paying your creditors.
What You Should Know•
There simply is no guarantee that any debt relief program will get you out of debt or stop collection calls or lawsuits. Anyone promising this is lying to you.•There is no way a debt relief plan can work for you if it isn’t based on your specific financial situation. Offers to enroll you without that review are bogus.•It’s illegal for debt relief companies to seek upfront payment before they provide services to you. Walk away when you learn about upfront fees.•In a scam scenario, you might be led to believe fees you are paying to the debt relief company are going to your creditors. If you follow their guidance to stop paying your creditors, you could end up being sued by them.
 

What You Should Do•
Check with your state attorney general and consumer protection agency before working with a debt relief service to see if it has been the subject of complaints.•Consider negotiating with creditors directly or connect with a debt counselor through a nonprofit credit counseling organization, such as the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (www.nfcc.org).•Report any debt relief scams to the Federal Trade Commission by calling 1‑800‑382‑4357 or going online to ReportFraud.ftc.gov.

First came Phishing, Now There’s Smishing

Most of us have heard of the term “phishing.” But did you know that phishing done by SMS (that stands for Short Message Service) text message has its own name? That’s right, it’s called “smishing.” (Get it? SMS + phishing?) And just like other types of phishing, smishing relies on the senders pretending to be someone they are not in hopes of getting ahold of your money or personal information.
   
How It Works
•You receive a text message that appears to be from a government agency or a company you are otherwise familiar with.•The text asks for personal information, such as a Social Security number or an online account password.•It may direct you to click a link to resolve a problem or access a service — during the ongoing pandemic, it may relate to COVID-19 testing, vaccines or contact tracing.
 
What You Should Know•
Scammers use technology to make it appear that texts are coming from a particular number, like the IRS or Social Security Administration, or from a company you may do business with.•The message will relay seemingly urgent information that requires you to act right away — your benefits have been suspended, your account has been compromised, or you need to sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine, for example.•The message will include a link for you to click on to address the situation.
 
What You Should Do•
Develop a habit of pausing before clicking on texts. Surveys show we are more likely to read and react to a text message than an email, which is why scammers have flocked to smishing.•Don’t click on links from suspicious texts; it may result in loading malicious software onto your device that will harvest your credentials, or sending you to a website that will do the same.•If you have reason to believe the text may be legitimate, reach out to the sender — the IRS, UPS, Amazon or whomever — at a number or web address you know to be legitimate.
Reprinted from AARP Fraud Watch Network

8 Things to Know Before Your Second Shot

 If you’ve already received your first dose of a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine, congratulations — you’re well on your way to being protected from the coronavirus. But to be fully immunized, it’s critical to get that second shot.

Across the country, some people are running into snafus as they try to get their second dose. Winter storms have shut down clinics in some areas, while others have closed because they temporarily ran out of vaccine. There are also scattered reports of scheduling glitch.


If you’ve had an appointment canceled, don’t wait for someone to call you — be proactive about rescheduling your second shot, advises William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious diseases specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, and medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

“We have told everyone these vaccines are 95 percent effective,” he says of the two-dose Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines currently in use in the U.S. “But they’re only 95 percent effective if you indeed get that second dose.”

Here are a few more things to know about the second dose:

1. Your side effects will likely be stronger

Many people who had little to no reaction to the first vaccine dose are reporting that the second one packs a punch — surprising even those who study vaccines for a living.

Greg Poland, M.D., an infectious disease expert at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and director of Mayo’s vaccine research group, had only mild symptoms after his first dose. But the second one left him shaking — literally — with chills and a temperature of 101.

“I took one Tylenol and went to bed and woke up the next morning 90 percent improved, and by midday I was back to normal,” Poland says. “This is not an indication of something going wrong; it is an indication of a vigorous immune response.”

There is no live virus in the vaccine, so you can’t get COVID-19 from being vaccinated.

Participants in clinical trials of both vaccines had experiences similar to Poland’s. In Pfizer’s clinical trial, for instance, 31 percent of participants ages 18 to 55 reported a fever after the second dose, compared to only 8 percent after the first one. Fatigue, chills, headache and muscle/joint pain were also more common after the second injection for both vaccines.



The good news is, older adults were less likely to experience vaccine reactions, the data shows. Among those age 55 and up in the Pfizer trial, 22 percent experienced fever after the second dose, and 3 percent had a temperature after the first dose.

Schaffner recommends not making any big plans for the day after your scheduled vaccine appointment.

2. You should avoid taking pain relievers before your shot

If you’ve been hearing stories about second-dose side effects, you may be tempted to take a pain reliever before your appointment.

That’s not a good idea, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), unless you’ve been advised to do so by your doctor. Pain relievers taken preemptively ahead of a shot could dampen the effectiveness of the vaccine, Poland and Schaffner say.

However, it’s OK to take acetaminophen (Tylenol) or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug like Advil or Motrin after your vaccine to treat side effects such as pain, fever, chills or headache.

3. The timing between doses doesn’t need to be exact

The second dose of the Pfizer shot is supposed to be given 21 days after the first; for Moderna, the recommended interval between doses is 28 days.

However, if you can’t get an appointment on the exact day — or if you have to miss your scheduled appointment for some reason — the CDC does allow some wiggle room. Although the agency recommends trying to stick to the suggested interval, it says the second dose can be given up to six weeks after the first.

If your appointment is scheduled earlier than the recommended date, ask for a later appointment, Schaffner advises. “Your immune response will work perfectly well if you take more time,” he says. “But if you do it too early, the second dose may not invoke an optimal response.”

4. Your second dose should be from the same manufacturer as your first

Doctors are already hearing from patients asking if they can get their second dose from a different manufacturer, often because they realize the other type of vaccine is offered at a location that’s more convenient. But the CDC recommends against it: The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines “are not interchangeable with each other or with other COVID-19 vaccine products,” the CDC says. “The safety and efficacy of a mixed-product series have not been evaluated.”

The CDC does allow the mixing of Pfizer and Moderna shots in “exceptional situations,” such as when the vaccine used for someone’s first dose is no longer available due to a supply shortage, or if it’s unclear which vaccine they got for their first dose.

5. A rash at the injection site isn’t a reason to skip your second dose

If you experienced a rash at the injection site three to 10 days after getting your first shot, that doesn’t preclude you from getting your second shot, the CDC says, although it recommends getting it in the other arm.

A small number of people have developed such rashes, sometimes called “COVID arm,” after vaccination. Doctors say it’s likely a mild allergic reaction that can be treated with an over-the-counter antihistamine such as Benadryl.

In guidance released Feb. 10, the CDC says the reaction is not believed to represent a risk for a more severe allergic reaction when you get your second dose.

6. You should temporarily avoid all other vaccines

It might be time for your shingles or Tdap vaccine, but you should hold off if you are between COVID-19 vaccine doses. Because there’s no data on the safety and efficacy of COVID vaccines administered at the same time as other vaccines, the CDC recommends avoiding other immunizations in the two weeks before and after both doses. Holding off also helps prevent confusion about the cause of a reaction if you experience one.

The CDC does allow exceptions in circumstances where avoiding the vaccine would put you at risk, such as a tetanus shot after a wound or a hepatitis shot during an outbreak.

7. Full immunity is not immediate

It takes two weeks after your second dose for your body to build full protection to the virus. After that, you should have almost zero chance of developing severe disease if you are exposed to someone with COVID-19, Schaffner says. The CDC also says you no longer have to quarantine if you’re exposed to someone with COVID-19 — as long as you meet these criteria: you don’t have symptoms and it hasn’t been more than three months since your second vaccine dose.

One possible exception is immunocompromised people, Schaffner says. They will get some level of immunity, he says, “but they may not reach the 95 percent because their immune system is already somewhat compromised, no matter how strong these vaccines are.”

8. You still need to wear a mask

Experts are divided about whether it’s OK to hug your grandchild or gather socially with other vaccinated people after you’re fully immunized.

But they agree you should continue to wear a mask and practice social distancing in public. For one thing, there’s a small chance you could get sick even after you’ve been vaccinated.

In addition, it’s possible that you could still carry the virus and silently transmit it to others who haven’t been vaccinated, even if you don’t develop symptoms.

And there’s one more reason. Until the country reaches herd immunity — the point when a significant portion of the population becomes immune to a disease — it’s important for everyone to wear a mask to stop the spread of the virus, Schaffner says. “If we have some people walking around maskless and others not, people left and right are just going to discard their masks,” he says. “We are not ready yet for that for society. Let’s all stick to masks a little longer until we get the all clear.”

Reprinted from AARP

Are two masks better than one?

Double Masking for COVID: Are Two Face Masks Better Than One?

Experts suggest ways to add layers of protection against the coronavirus

Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, wears two masks during a White House news conference.

With COVID-19 cases surging and the discovery of new, faster-spreading coronavirus strains in the U.S., it might be time to double down on face masks — literally — by wearing two at a time. Layering one mask over another can significantly boost your protection against the coronavirus, some experts say, especially if your ordinary mask is thin or loose-fitting.

“A mask is like an obstacle course for particles to get through,” said Linsey Marr, an expert in virus transmission and a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech. “Adding a second mask adds another obstacle course, increasing the chance that the particle will be trapped before it gets through to the other side.”


For the latest coronavirus news and advice go to AARP.org/coronavirus.


Marr especially recommends use of a disposable, nonwoven mask underneath a tightly fitted cloth mask, which she said should block about 90 percent of infectious particles.

Although COVID-19 vaccination has started, masking is still important because the virus will continue to spread and sicken people until most of the population is immunized. And with the discovery of new variants that could be up to 70 percent more transmissible, some experts say it’s prudent to wear not just any face covering, but a high-quality one (or two).

“Last year, we wanted to get as many people to wear masks as possible,” Marr said. “This year, with new, more transmissible variants, we really need to think about improving our masks.”

All masks are not created equal

Many Americans have been wearing the same cloth masks for months — in many cases, homemade versions originally created to ease a limited supply. These days, however, there are hundreds of options for sale, including nonmedical disposable surgical masks, and cloth versions with multiple layers and special filters.

Masks to Avoid

The CDC recommends against the following types of masks:

  • Masks that do not fit properly (too loose or with large gaps)
  • Masks made from loosely woven fabric, such as fabrics that let light pass through
  • Masks with one layer
  • Masks with exhalation valves or vents
  • Scarves or ski masks worn as a mask
  • Masks made from materials that are hard to breathe through (such as plastic or leather)

Studies show that not all masks are created equal; construction, materials and fit make a difference.

“When I think of who I want to wear a mask with increased fit and filtration, I think of older adults and vulnerable people with underlying conditions,” said Monica Gandhi, M.D., an infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

Gandhi and Marr wrote a recent commentary in Cell Press with recommendations about how to improve the protection you get from your mask.

Other countries have already taken steps to get people to wear higher-quality masks: Hong Kong distributed six-layer masks to all of its citizens; Austria sent high-grade medical masks (the equivalent of N95s) to residents over age 65; and Germany recently began mandating medical-grade masks in shops and on public transit.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says medical-grade surgical masks and N95s, the gold-standard masks in the U.S., still need to be reserved for health care personnel because they are in short supply.

A CDC division that oversees medical devices is working to develop filtration standards that will allow masks to include a label showing how well they block infectious particles. That work is expected to be completed by April, a spokeswoman said.

In addition, some U.S. scientists are calling on the federal government to increase production of medical-grade masks and make them more widely available.



How to build a better face mask

For now, experts say you can still get excellent results from the cloth and nonmedical surgical masks that are widely available. For a high level of protection, they offer the following suggestions:

COURTESY LINSEY MARR AND JASPER MARR HESTER

Two options for maximum protection: disposable mask under cloth mask (left) or cloth mask with a filter insert (right).

Wear a disposable mask under your favorite cloth mask.

Start with double masking. You can maximize the protection your cloth mask offers simply by wearing a nonwoven disposable mask under it, Marr said.

Most disposable masks on the consumer market are not medical grade, but they are still made of polypropylene, a nonwoven fabric that electrostatically repulses viral particles. That means they should still score high marks when it comes to blocking the virus, Marr said. The problem is, their loose fit leaves too many gaps where viral particles can get in and out when worn alone.

“By themselves, surgical masks don’t work great because they’re so open on the sides,” Marr said. “If you put a tight-fitting cloth mask over it, that helps hold it down and reduce gaps to improve the fit.”

Marr said layering more than two masks will likely have diminishing returns as it becomes harder to breathe, making you less likely to keep them on.

Use a tightly woven cloth mask with a filter in the middle.

A snug-fitting fabric mask with a filter can block 74 to 90 percent of infectious particles, Marr’s research shows. Adding a nonwoven filter is important because it can help catch tiny aerosols that slip past the weave in even tightly woven fabrics.

You can buy a special HEPA filter designed to fit into a mask with a pocket, or cut up a vacuum bag. Several research studies that examine mask effectiveness have found vacuum bags to be among the best materials at catching tiny particles.

“Start with two layers of tightly woven cloth, put a plain old generic vacuum bag between them, and you’ve got a great blocker with effectiveness approaching that of an N95 mask,” Gandhi said.

Use hacks to make a disposable mask (or any mask) fit better.

If you usually wear a disposable mask, you can enhance the protection it offers by finding a way to tighten it so there are fewer gaps between it and your face.

For an easy fix, cross the ear loops and tuck in the corners of the mask to minimize gaps. In a Dec. 10 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, that simple change increased a surgical mask’s filtration efficiency from 38 percent to 60 percent.

Attaching the mask behind your neck with a claw hair clip or an ear guard offers a similar performance boost, the study showed, because it pulls the mask tight against your face.

You can also purchase a special mask brace or frame to go over your disposable mask and seal it against your face. A frame pushes the filtration efficiency of a surgical mask to about 80 percent, according to the JAMA Internal Medicine study.

Consider a KN95 mask.

Like N95 masks, KN95 masks are supposed to trap at least 95 percent of particles 0.3 microns in size. The only difference is that KN95s are manufactured to meet Chinese standards, rather than American ones.

KN95s were tough for consumers to find early in the pandemic because health care providers were snapping them up, but they are increasingly appearing on store shelves where ordinary shoppers can buy them. Marr said they can be a good option — as long as you’re getting the real thing.

A study in September by ECRI, a nonprofit group that evaluates medical technology, found that as many as 70 percent of the KN95 masks being sold in the U.S. were counterfeit.

U.S. health officials have started testing the masks. The CDC publishes a list of the brands that did and did not meet its standards in batch tests. You may want to check the list before you buy.

In a statement, a CDC spokeswoman said that even those KN95s that don’t pass muster to serve as medical-grade masks “are expected to provide source control (i.e., protect others) similar or better than gaiters, homemade, and most unregulated masks.”

Reprinted from AARP

Tech Scams

With much attention focused on COVID-19 scams and stimulus payment scams, it’s easy to lose sight of some scams that just never go away. One perennial favorite of scammers is tech support. This scam often earns the criminal the ability to load malicious software onto your device to harvest credentials.
   
How It Works•
You get an unsolicited phone call or email from a big tech company like Microsoft or Apple, or you see a pop-up message on your screen warning that a virus or other malicious program has infected your device, and you need to call the number on the screen right away.•A “technician” asks for remote access to your device, and once in, shows you some files that “prove” you have a major problem.•The “technician” says they can fix your problem for a fee, and then may offer you a monthly subscription to keep your device safe.
 
Warning Signs•
Big tech companies like Microsoft or Apple say they don’t call customers out of the blue to warn them of problems on their devices.•The concerning files the “technician” may show you on your device are completely benign.•The scammer may ask you to pay by purchasing a gift card and providing the account number and PIN — a sure sign that it’s a scam, as is a request for payment by wire transfer.•The scammer may call back months later and offer you a refund for some phony reason, asking for your bank account information to deposit the money; this is a ruse.•Here’s audio of a tech support scam call as recorded by the Federal Trade Commission.
 
What You Should Do•
Screen incoming calls with an answering machine or voicemail, and once you listen to the message, decide if it warrants a callback.•If the caller claims you have a problem with your computer or the software on your computer, it is a scam, so don’t engage or return the call.•If you get a pop-up that freezes your screen, shut down your computer and restart it.•Keep your security software, browser and operating system up to date.•If you think your device is infected, get it checked out by a reputable source; most big-box electronics retailers offer tech support services.•If you realize you’ve fallen victim to this scam, and you’ve paid by credit card, contact your financial institution to dispute the charge and to cancel any monthly fees you may have agreed to.•Report scams to the Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov/complaint.
Reprinted from AARP Fraud Watch Network
 

 
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Elder Abuse

The Red Flags of Elder Financial Abuse
Elder abuse sadly takes many forms. It can be physical, sexual or emotional abuse, neglect, or financial exploitation. The latter is when someone – who is often well known by the victim – illegally or improperly uses an elder’s funds, property or assets. Here are several examples, some signs that abuse may be occurring and steps you can take if you suspect elder financial exploitation.
   
How It Works•
A family member cashes the victim’s checks, uses their credit cards, steals cash or valuables from the home, or convinces them to transfer property.•A crooked financial consultant drains a victim’s financial accounts.•A new “friend” enters the picture and appears to have undue influence.
 
What You Should Know
Unusual changes in bank accounts or how they are managing their money.•Unpaid bills.•Fraudulent signatures on financial documents.•Unusual changes in a will or other financial document.
 
What You Should Do•
If someone is in immediate danger, dial 911.•Report concerns to Adult Protective Services; you can find your local agency at Eldercare Locator or call 1‑800‑677‑1116.•If you suspect abuse of a person living in a nursing home, assisted living facility, or other adult care home, contact the local Long-Term Care Ombudsman.
 
Financial exploitation and fraud come at a huge cost to victims – not only financially. These scourges also have negative social, emotional and health impacts. If you suspect something, do something. For guidance, call the AARP Fraud Watch Helpline at 1‑877‑908‑3360.
Reprinted from AARP Fraud Watch Network 

Online Shopping Scams

The internet continues to reshape the way we shop, with retail apps and social media stores adding to consumers’ online options and the coronavirus pandemic driving people to shop from home in droves. Cybercriminals are keeping pace. Online purchasing is the most common scam type reported to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), accounting for 38 percent of complaints to the BBB’s Scam Tracker in the first seven months of 2020 — up from 24 percent in 2019.

The typical shopping scam starts with a bogus website, mobile app or social media ad. Some faux e-stores are invented from whole cloth, but many mimic trusted retailers, with familiar logos and slogans and a URL that’s easily mistaken for the real thing. They offer popular items at a fraction of the usual cost and promise perks like free shipping and overnight delivery, exploiting the premium online shoppers put on price and speed.

Some of these copycats do deliver merchandise — shoddy knockoffs worth less than even the “discount” price advertised as a once-in-a-lifetime deal on, say, Tiffany watches or Timberland boots. More often, you’ll wait in vain for your purchase to arrive. Reports to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) of undelivered orders quadrupled from 2015 to 2019, and no-shows reached record highs in the spring of 2020 as the spread of COVID-19 fueled a spike in online shopping. 

And your losses might not stop there: Scammers may seed phony sites, apps, or links in pop-up ads and email coupons with malware that infects your device and harvests personal information for use in identity theft.

Not surprisingly, these frauds flourish during the holiday season. A November 2020 AARP survey on holiday shopping found that while 72 percent of U.S. consumers are concerned about the security of their personal and financial information when buying something online, only 15 percent could correctly answer at least 7 of 10 true/false questions about safe shopping practices. You need not forgo the ease and endless selection of online shopping, but take precautions to make sure you get what you pay for.

Warning Signs

  • Bargain-basement prices. Internet security firm Norton says to be on guard if discounts exceed 55 percent.
  • Shoddy website design or sloppy English. Real retailers take great care with their online presentation.
  • Limited or suspicious contact options — for example, they only have a fill-in contact form, or the customer-service email is a Yahoo or Gmail account, not a corporate one.
  • URLs with extraneous words or characters (most stores use only their brand name in web addresses) or unusual domains — for example, .bargain, .app or a foreign domain instead of .com or .net.

Do’s

  • Do use trusted sites rather than shopping with a search engine. Scammers can game search results to lead you astray.
  • Do comparison shop. Check prices from multiple retailers to help determine if a deal you’ve seen really is too good to be true.
  • Do research an unfamiliar product or brand. Search for its name with terms like “scam” or “complaint,” and look for reviews.
  • Do check that phone numbers and addresses on store sites are genuine, so you can contact the seller in case of problems.
  • Do carefully read delivery, exchange, refund and privacy policies. If they are vague or nonexistent, take your business elsewhere.
  • Do look twice at URLs and app names. Misplaced or transposed letters are a scam giveaway but easy to miss.
  • Do pay by credit card. Liability for fraudulent charges on credit cards is generally limited to $50, and some providers offer 100 percent purchase protection. Paying by debit card does not off offer such safeguards.

Don’ts

  • Don’t pay by wire transfer, money order or gift card. Sellers that demand these types of payments are scammers, and unlike with credit cards or reputable e-pay services, there’s little recourse to recover your money.
  • Don’t assume a retail website is safe because it is encrypted. Many scam sites use encryption, indicated by a padlock icon or “https://” in front of the URL, to provide a false sense of security. Use other means, like those listed to the left, to confirm if a site is legit.
  • Don’t provide more information than a retailer needs. That should be only your billing information and the shipping address.
  • Don’t use sites that require you to download software or enter personal information to access coupons or discount codes.
  • Don’t buy from sites that are very new, security software maker Norton recommends. Look for a copyright date, and use the WHOIS lookup service to see when a domain was created.

More Resources

Reprinted from AARP Fraud Watch Network

Gift Cards Are Convenient but Can come With Risks

Gift cards have become one of Americans’ favorite ways to mark birthdays and holidays, and — in light of COVID-19’s impact on this shopping season — they likely will be popular once again. A recent survey by AARP reveals that nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults plan to purchase gift cards as presents this holiday season. But be forewarned of potential scams.
   
How it Works
Scammers have come up with novel ways to drain the value of gift cards, or to convince us to buy them at a discount.
 
What You Should Know
A common trick is for thieves to compromise gift cards hanging on store racks. Often, they expose the PIN on the back and then cover it back up with easy-to-obtain replacement stickers. When someone buys and loads a compromised card, the scammer is notified and drains the value from the card.•Fraudsters also lurk on resale or auction websites, ostensibly offering items at an attractive discount. Once they get you interested in buying, they’ll ask you to pay with a gift card. As soon as they get the card number and PIN from you, they vanish, and so does the money on the card.•Scammers send emails or text messages, supposedly from a familiar store or organization saying you’ve won a gift card. To claim it, you just need to provide contact information, click through to a website or answer a few survey questions. Their goal may be to unleash malicious software on your device to access sensitive information, or use your data for identity theft or to sell it to marketers.
 
What You Should Do•
Examine gift cards carefully for signs of tampering before you buy them. Keep the activation receipt with the gift card. You can also register your card with the retailer if the option is offered. This makes it easier to track and quickly report any issues.•Be wary of cards hanging on racks that are easily accessible. See if you can purchase gift cards that are protected behind the counter — or better yet, buy them online directly from the retailer or restaurant that issues them.•Delete any unsolicited email or text message offering you a gift card, without responding. And never give your personal information to anyone in exchange for a gift card.
Reprinted from AARP Fraud Network

With People Getting COVID-19 Vaccine, Officials Warn That Scams are Next

Paying a fraudster will not let you jump to the head of the line

With the first coronavirus vaccine in the U.S. just authorized, state and federal officials are warning that ruthless criminals will try to capitalize on the historic step to steal people’s money.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a fraud alert on Dec. 3 aimed at Americans eager to get vaccinated against COVID-19: “You will not be asked for money to enhance your ranking for vaccine eligibility.”

The same day as the HHS fraud alert went out, WROC-TV in Rochester, New York, reported that a recorded-scam call offered people a chance to avoid long lines and receive an early dose of the Pfizer vaccine for $79.99.

The two developments happened more than a week before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), on Dec. 11, authorized the vaccine on an emergency-use basis.

Top state officials are also sounding the alarm about the potential for criminal activity. Even before the FDA acted, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody warned about product and distribution scams tied to the vaccine.

Stay on ‘high alert’

“Floridians must remain on high alert,” Moody urged. A confluence of factors — vaccines winning or applying for FDA authorization and consumers anxious for immunity from disease — mean “scammers may exploit the situation to rip off Floridians.”


STATE OF FLORIDA / STATE OF MICHIGAN

Ashley Moody (left), the attorney general of Florida, and Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, a top health official in Michigan, are among state officials warning about scams tied to coronavirus vaccines.

Leading up to the FDA’s authorization of the Pfizer vaccine, Michigan officials exhorted the public to stay vigilant about COVID-19 scams related to vaccines, treatments, test kits and clinical trials. Be “extremely wary” of anyone who offers you a vaccine now, said Joneigh Khaldun, M.D., a top official at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Here are five key points that state and federal officials want the public to understand.

1. Initially, the vaccine will be available in limited quantities, so people should turn to trusted resources — their doctor or local health department — for guidance.

2. People should not buy any kind of coronavirus vaccine or treatment on the internet or from an online pharmacy.

3. Doses of vaccine that were purchased with U.S. taxpayer dollars will be provided to patients at no cost. Providers, though, may charge an administration fee and have that fee reimbursed by private and public insurance companies. There’s also a means of reimbursement for uninsured patients.

4. Consumers should not respond to any solicitations about the vaccine. “Fraudsters are using telemarketing calls, text messages, social media platforms and door-to-door visits to perpetrate COVID-19-related scams,” HHS officials said in the Dec. 3 fraud advisory.

5. People should not give cash or any other form of payment to suspicious callers, nor should they divulge personal, medical or financial information, which criminals can use to fraudulently bill federal health care programs and to commit medical identity theft.

There will be strict protocols for the order in which certain groups of people, such as nursing home residents and health care workers, will be inoculated. Watch for announcements from federal and state governments. For more information, consult online resources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web pages and the FDA’s vaccine web pages

Criminals chase headlines

Cybersecurity expert Mike Stamas learned of the $79.99 Pfizer scam when the Rochester television station interviewed him about it. He told AARP that he’s “not surprised at all” that criminals are out for quick cash during a global health crisis, observing, “Criminals exploit things that are hot in the media as a way to steal.”

Stamas, 42, cofounder of GreyCastle Security in Troy, New York, said the pandemic serves as a reminder to everyone to adhere to good practices with computer devices, passwords and cybersecurity in general. Stamas lives with his father, 83, and always reminds his computer-savvy dad not to click on suspicious emails, respond to unsolicited offers, or interact with a stranger via an email, chat or a website.

“It’s a benefit to have a healthy paranoia,” Stamas said. “And if an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

Officials fear past is prologue

At the HHS Office of Inspector General, the department’s watchdog arm, an official told AARP on Dec. 8 that so far, it had seen “few signs” of coronavirus vaccine fraud. The watchdog issued its alert based on the way scammers have quickly altered their tactics and schemes throughout the pandemic, spokesperson Tesia Williams said. Scams have varied: selling overpriced or nonexistent personal protective equipment and cleaning products; touting fake cures and treatments; setting up phony testing sites for COVID-19; and cheating government COVID-19 relief programs.

“It is incumbent upon us to alert the public of likely schemes and what people can do to protect themselves,” Williams said.

Pfizer, based in New York City, did not respond to questions from AARP about the reported scam call for a $79.99 vaccine. But since May the global drug company has been warning people about COVID-19 scammers, including counterfeiters, “who scheme to make a profit by price gouging, selling dangerous fake medicines or perpetrating scams on unsuspecting customers.”

“During a crisis, scammers are more prevalent than ever,” Pfizer cautioned, “preying on your fears and targeting those desperate for a solution.”

Reprinted from AARP

Older Adults Need Better Online Security

A drill sergeant would shout it out loudly and clearly: “People, strengthen your passwords!” That’s a critical recommendation to emerge in an AARP-sponsored report that examined identity fraud and found more than 1 in 4 Americans were hit by identity fraud last year, when losses were almost $17 billion.

Identity fraud is worse than identity theft, which is when your personally identifiable information (PII) is stolen or compromised, as in a data breach. In identity fraud cases, a crook capitalizes on that sensitive data and rips you off or commits a related offense, says Javelin Strategy & Research, which wrote the report after surveying 5,000 adults in the U.S.

‘Great digital migration’

With loads of shopping and other transactions moving online, especially during the pandemic, what’s happening will eventually be described as the “great digital migration,” the report says. And 2019’s estimated $16.9 billion in losses could climb as consumers adapt to a “digitally infused lifestyle.”

Today, people want contactless, safe and faster personal and financial transactions and, according to the report, the good news is that desire will drive commercial innovation. The bad news: Forecasts call for “increased criminal acts that target consumers and monetize their personally identifiable data,” says the report, entitled “Identity Fraud in Three Acts: A Consumer Guide.” The report focuses on adults 55 and older.

Create an action plan

What to do? Create an action plan to keep safe — and stronger passwords are a good start. It’s risky for a consumer to use an identical sign-on name — coupled with the same, weak password — across multiple social-media accounts, bank accounts and e-commerce sites, says Javelin’s John Buzzard, who wrote the report.

“Once the criminal cracks the formula, so to speak, and they take over your account, they just start to take over everything because you’ve made it very, very easy for them,” says Buzzard, the lead analyst for fraud and security at Javelin, based in Pleasanton, California.

Here’s more for your action plan:

1. Use a password manager tool or app. Password managers such as LastPass or Bitwarden store and protect passwords using strong encryption. Both offer free and for-a-fee services and you can find them in the App Store or online.

2. Secure personal payments with digital wallets such as Apple Pay and Google Pay. They’re standard features on most smartphones and retailers accept them widely. Wallets use encryption to prevent payment card information from being shared in the open with merchants.

3. Lock your payment cards. Many financial institutions offer card controls that manage how and where payments can be made. Consumers also can decide if they want to limit amounts spent, restrict spending to geographical areas or prevent card use at certain types of merchants, such as jewelry stores.

4. Enable two-step authentication to access digital accounts. Onetime access codes make it difficult for criminals to take over sensitive email, financial and mobile phone accounts.

5. Hang up on strangers, and independently verify everything. Do not speak to people you do not know who contact you about sensitive, urgent or threatening personal business matters.

6. Write down important telephone numbers and keep them in a safe place. Criminals are now posting fake customer-service numbers online. It’s safer to make a list of trusted companies so you may reach them quickly.

7. Safeguard every computer device with stronger security methods. Mobile phones, laptops and tablets typically contain sensitive PII, so access to every digital device should be secured with complex passwords and screen locks that use a fingerprint or facial recognition.

8. Install anti-malware protection on all digital devices: laptops, mobile phones, personal computers and tablets.

Key findings of survey

The action plan arises because of key survey findings:

  • Twenty-seven percent of respondents ages 55 to 64 said they had been victims of identity fraud, and 26 percent of those 65 and older. However, when identity fraud strikes these older adults, the financial damage is far less than the national average.
  • Most adults 55 and older reported having a hard time remembering passwords. Among those ages 55 to 64, it 56 percent said they have difficulty, and among those 65 and older, 60 percent.
  • Men and women 55-plus lead “digitally infused” lives. Two-thirds use online banking weekly, which is higher than adults ages 18 to 44. With respect to smartphones, 81 percent of people ages 55 to 64 have them, and so do 77 percent of those 65 and older.
  • Identity fraud victims do not necessarily change their behavior afterward. Among those 65 and older, 70 percent reported reluctance to avoid certain merchants, switch forms of payment, spend less money online, spend less in physical stores and switch their credit-card companies or banks.
  • Consumers 55 and older want banks to start using stronger security protocols. Roughly 90 percent want more fingerprint scanning and roughly 80 percent view facial recognition as trustworthy for financial transactions and private business matters.
  • Consumers 55 and older are adopting safer practices: More than 50 percent have enrolled in identity-protection or credit-monitoring services, and 29 percent have enabled credit freezes at credit bureaus.

The online survey of a representative sample of 5,000 adults occurred from Oct. 22 to Nov. 4, 2019. The survey’s margin of error is plus or minus 1.41 percent when all 5,000 respondents answered questions; it is plus or minus 3.22 percent for questions answered by identity fraud victims.

Reprinted from AARP Fraud Network