Federal, state and local authorities are warning people to watch out for scammers promising quicker access to coronavirus vaccines or other benefits related to the pandemic.

Police departments in southern Maine have started to receive reports from residents who have received calls from suspected scammers who say they can schedule COVID-19 vaccination appointments or connect seniors on Medicare with a government benefits card for coronavirus-related benefits. The calls often target seniors and come from phone numbers that spoof legitimate local numbers.

“Our older (residents are) not only vulnerable, but they’re isolated and lonely. Their hope is to get the vaccination and get back into the community. (Scammers) prey on the false hope they’ll be getting a vaccination sooner,” said Officer Candice Simeoni, who investigates elder crimes for the Kennebunk Police Department and gives presentations about scams that target seniors.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General in late December issued an alert about fraud schemes related to COVID-19, saying scammers are using telemarketing calls, text messages, social media platforms and door-to-door visits to perpetuate scams. The warning said fraudsters are offering COVID-19 tests, HHS grants and Medicare prescription cards in exchange for personal details, including Medicare information.

“These scammers use the coronavirus pandemic to benefit themselves, and beneficiaries face potential harm. The personal information collected can be used to fraudulently bill federal health care programs and commit medical identity theft,” the warning said.

U.S. Attorney Halsey Frank Submitted photo

U.S. Attorney Halsey Frank, the top federal prosecutor in Maine, said Friday the public should be wary of COVID-19 vaccine scams. Among the tactics scammers use are advertisements promoting early access to vaccines in exchange for a deposit or fee, as well as offers to be put on a vaccine waiting list in exchange for money, according to Frank.

“These scammers are ruthless and relentless, and everyone needs to have their guard up,” Frank said in a statement. “People here in Maine, particularly the elderly, are desperate to get vaccinated as quickly as possible, and the con artists are exploiting that desperation to get access to their money and personal information.”

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported it has received numerous reports of individuals receiving calls – many from an 844 area code – from individuals claiming to be part of the agency’s contact-tracing team or calling to confirm a vaccine appointment. The callers then ask for Social Security numbers, which is not part of the contact-tracing process.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, recommended that people “be skeptical and exercise extreme caution,” urging them to ask for the person’s employee ID number and a follow-up contact number. In the case of callers asking for personal information as part of contact tracing, Shah recommended that skeptical individuals hang up and call the Maine CDC at 207-287-8016 and ask to speak to the contact tracing department.

Simeoni, from the Kennebunk Police Department, was not surprised when she started hearing about fraud schemes related to COVID-19 because scammers look to take advantage of people’s emotions. In the past week, Simeoni has taken two reports from Kennebunk residents targeted by vaccination scams.

One local senior called Simeoni to report a possible scam after the woman had given her Social Security number to a person who claimed to be from MaineHealth and calling to schedule the woman’s vaccination appointment. The woman had called the vaccination center’s line to register and was waiting for a call back when she received a call from a number that appeared to be the vaccination center.

After hanging up from the call, the woman thought about the conversation and realized something about it felt off. The woman, who had previously seen a presentation Simeoni gave about phone scams, called police to report she had disclosed personal information and was worried the call had been fraudulent.

“She said it was believable,” Simeoni said. “It came up as the number she had called for the hotline. That’s what made her feel like it was the real deal.”

Simeoni said MaineHealth told her that people scheduling a vaccine appointment will not be asked for a full Social Security number, credit card or banking information. They will only verify date of birth and address. The authentic vaccination center calls come from 877-780-7545, but Simeoni said it is important to remember that scammers can spoof phone numbers.

York County Sheriff William King said he received a report last week from an elderly woman in Waterboro.

She got a telephone call from someone who told her she needed a new Medicare card in order to be approved for a vaccination. The caller started asking questions about her health.

“She answered some questions, but it started going a little overboard, so she hung up,” King said.

The same number called back a couple of times, but the woman didn’t answer. “People should absolutely report this type of activity to local law enforcement,” the sheriff said.

According to a Facebook post by the sheriff’s office, the woman contacted Medicare and was told to file a report with the Office of the Inspector General.

In Cape Elizabeth, police took a report on Jan. 21 from a man who reported he had disclosed his Medicare patient number to a suspected scammer who offered a card that would speed up the process of obtaining a COVID-19 vaccination.

“These scammers are always looking for opportunities to manipulate situations and take advantage of people’s fears,” said Police Chief Paul Fenton. “I’m not shocked this is what they’re onto now.”

The man who received the call became suspicious after talking about it with his wife, Fenton said. Often, people who have provided information to suspected scammers realize something was off after they talk to a third party about it, he said.

Fenton said there is rarely a legitimate reason to give out personal information over the phone. People should be skeptical of callers who won’t let them off the phone or don’t want the person to hang up and call back.

“If it’s too good to be true, it usually isn’t true,” Fenton said.

Simeoni said people who believe they have been scammed shouldn’t feel embarrassed and let that stop them from reporting it to police.

“People need to realize that it can happen to anyone. It’s happening every day,” she said. “This is (the scammers’) full-time job, so they’re good at it.”

Simeoni advises people who have given personal information to a suspected scammer to file a police report, then check their credit reports. They should continue to monitor their credit because scammers don’t always use information immediately, but may use it later to file false tax returns or open credit cards.

Authorities say anyone who believes they are the victim of a COVID-19 scam or attempted fraud should call local police and the National Center for Disaster Fraud hotline at 866-720-5721.

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