STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
State officials and federal agencies warn of a new phone scam. Callers pose as COVID-19 contact tracers to try to get your personal information.
With us now via Skype to discuss this is reporter Julie Appleby of Kaiser Health News. Welcome.
JULIE APPLEBY: Thank you.
INSKEEP: So what does it sound like when you get a call from a fake contact tracer?
APPLEBY: Well, you know, scammers are very creative. So officials are kind of telling me that there's various scenarios. But one of them goes something like this; your phone rings, and the person on the other end says they're calling you from your local health department to let you know that you've been in contact with someone who has COVID-19. And the person might say, hey, you need a COVID test.
So sounds legit so far. Right? But then they move in for their real objective, which is getting your credit card number or other payment information. You know, they might say something like, hey, we need that to bill you for sending you a test, for example. Basically, don't fall for that. Some scams also come in by text, and they ask you to click on a link. Do not click on the link.
INSKEEP: You know, I'm thinking about how most scams play on people's greed or their gullibility. This is especially offensive, I think, because it plays on people's fear in the pandemic or plays even on their public-spiritedness. People want to do the right thing, and they're being taken advantage of.
APPLEBY: Right. That's exactly right. And legitimate contact tracing is very important. It's one of the key things, along with, you know, masking and social distancing, that the public health experts are hoping will slow the spread of the virus. So this is particularly insidious.
INSKEEP: How widespread is this?
APPLEBY: You know, we're hearing it from states across the country, from Hawaii to Florida to Pennsylvania. There's a national warning out from the Federal Trade Commission and another from the Better Business Bureau. Some local neighborhood Listservs I've seen and Facebook pages are also circulating a warning.
INSKEEP: So I'm thinking about the fact that I might really get a real call from a real contact tracer. How can I tell the difference between the real person and the fake?
APPLEBY: OK. So a legitimate contact tracer does not ask for payment or seek any other financial information, so that's one way you can tell. Real tracers do not ask for your Social Security number. They will not provide the name of the patient with whom you had contact. And texts from these contact tracers simply let you know to expect a phone call. Right? They don't contain a link.
So if you do get a phone call, do a little homework. Ask for the person's name and their return phone number and say you will call them back. Then, check with your local health department to confirm that this person is indeed doing contact tracing. That would be one way you could kind of counter that.
And if you do get a call, don't be surprised if a real contact tracer asks you to confirm your address or date of birth. They need this information because they don't want to give sensitive health information to the wrong person. So they're trying to confirm your identity. Real tracers are going to also ask you for information about where you've been and who you've been in contact with during the days surrounding your diagnosis or exposure, and that's because they need that information to track it and warn others of potential exposure.
INSKEEP: So a real contact tracer should be somebody I could find, whose identity I can confirm, who may ask me for personal information. But if they start trying to get money out of me, that's the obvious sign.
APPLEBY: That's correct - or any kind of financial information. That is an obvious sign.
INSKEEP: Julie, thanks so much for the warning.
APPLEBY: OK. Thank you.
INSKEEP: Julie Appleby of Kaiser Health News.
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