Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ April 2021

For Your Awareness

Beware of COVID Scams During the Pandemic

By Jay Santiago

Despite the steady push by Maryland health officials to lift its eligibility restrictions for the COVID-19 vaccine, fraudsters continue developing different ways to obtain personal identifiable information (PII) and swindle cash from those seeking medical benefits or access to the vaccine.  Unfortunately, these scammers are capitalizing on fears and the desperate attempts of these victims.  COVID-19 scams range from telemarketing calls and door-to-door visits to social media ads and fake websites.

In a noteworthy enforcement action against a fake website, on 11 February 2021, the United States Attorney for the District of Maryland, Robert K. Hur, along with representatives from Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Baltimore; the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Office of Criminal Investigations’ Metro Washington Field Office; the U.S. Postal Inspection Service; and the Baltimore County Police Department announced that a criminal complaint had been filed against three Maryland residents for using a fake website to carry out a COVID-19 fraud scheme (read article here).

According to the complaint, those charged fraudulently replicated a biotechnology company’s website in order to appear “visually similar” to the real website and displayed the company name and trademarked logos.  The replicated site added the text, “YOU MAY BE ABLE TO BUY A COVID-19 VACCINE AHEAD OF TIME.”  Federal agents, in an undercover capacity, used the “Contact Us” link on the website and engaged the perpetrators, who eventually sent the undercover agent an invoice for 200 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.  The investigation led to multiple search warrants, along with the discovery that one of the defendants allegedly applied for and fraudulently received a COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

To alert the public on the various scams associated to COVID-19, on 15 March 2021, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General (HHS OIG) updated its initial alert about these fraud schemes (read alert here).  In one particular scheme, medical labs honed in on retirement communities, claiming to offer COVID-19 tests, but were actually drawing blood and billing federal health care programs for the unnecessary service.  Other schemes — like offering COVID-19 tests or Medicare prescription cards in exchange for PII — were also noted.  The alert emphasized the need to be mindful of how these scams are perpetrated and how we can better protect ourselves.

HHS OIG recommends the following on how to protect yourself from COVID-19 related scams:

Remember, as a rule of thumb, any COVID-19 test or vaccine is FREE!  Any program, website, or call requesting your PII or any money in exchange for medical assistance related to the virus is fraud.  If you believe you have been victimized by any of these schemes, you may also call the National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline at 1.866.720.5721.

[Jay Santiago is a pseudonym for a former local police officer now in federal law enforcement who grew up here and moved back.]   ■

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