Commentary

Duane Dunston: The pandemic has brought out the scammers. Be careful.

This commentary is by Duane Dunston, a cybersecurity expert and a professor at Champlain College.

The pandemic has brought with it a significant number of scams, as you may expect. The Department of Justice website lists fraud cases almost every day in March 2021 related to the pandemic. 

As of March 26, 2021, over 474 people had been charged with fraud related to the relief efforts and scams involved with the pandemic. While many of those cases involve people committing fraud via reporting false payroll expenses and creating fake companies, there are cases where people are stealing the identities of individuals to obtain loans or receive funds intended for others. Even those who are incarcerated were targeted for identity theft.

Other scams to look out for are related to vaccinations and also contact tracers. 

Vaccination registration

Please do not give out, in vaccination calls, email or text:

  • Your medical history
  • Social Security number
  • Address
  • Financial information
  • Who lives with you or if you live alone

If in doubt about a phone call, record the number, hang up and call your state’s health department to verify the contact tracer. Regardless, do not give out any personal information about yourself or others or if someone does or doesn’t live with you. Do not respond to email messages asking for that information or fill out any web forms. The only time a web form should be filled out is if you directly visit your state’s health department to register for a vaccine. Do not respond to unsolicited phone calls to register you because you’d be giving your private information to someone you don’t know.

Contact tracer

With contact tracer phone calls, emails, or text messages, do not send any information. It is best to take time to become familiar with your state’s contact tracing protocol. Here in Vermont, you may receive a text message or a phone call. With a text message in Vermont, you’ll see the number #86361, which they explain on their website: “If you receive a text message from 86361, this is a notification from the Health Department that you are a close contact of someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Soon you will receive a call from a Health Department Contact Tracer.”

They will not ask for financial information, social security number, and other personal information. The contact tracer may inquire if you need assistance but will explain the process for it.

Registration online for vaccinations should only be at healthvermont.gov for Vermonters. The CDC has a link to all state health departments. Start there, at a minimum.

Listen to a sample contact call here.

In summary:

  • Do not give any personal information such as Social Security number, address, who you live with or if you live alone, or financial information via email messages, phone calls, or web forms asking for the information.
  • If you know someone without internet access, print out or share with them the test-message number to expect for Vermont or your state. Provide them the state’s health department phone number to register for their vaccination.
  • Be aware that scammers will play on your emotions and will try to talk to you about the weather, the effects of the pandemic, etc. As you are talking with them, you may inadvertently share the information they are expecting.
  • Be vigilant and share with those who don’t have access to the internet to know about these scams.
  • The elderly, those who may not speak the native language well, or life situations (poverty, incarceration, mental illness, etc.) are particularly vulnerable.
  • Social support organizations, community centers, religious organizations, news outlets, radio stations, pharmacies, and medical organizations should provide a phone number to their state’s health department for vaccination registration. News and radio outlets can reach many people and may want to share the information frequently and display it prominently with TV and print news.

Stay alert online and on the phone.


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