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This post will be updated as more information becomes available

Contact tracing scams have begun to pick up steam with the evolving technology coming closer to becoming a reality. Some of those scams include hackers and fraudsters posing as contact tracers – both online and in person – trying to steal personally identifiable information (PII), personal health information (PHI) and other personal data.

The United States began the re-opening process after the COVID-19 pandemic closed many aspects of daily life. That is expected to include many precautions to keep people safe, including contact tracing – a method used to find the people who may have come into contact with someone infected with COVID-19. In fact, many people anticipate contact tracing will play a large part in keeping people informed of their risk of exposure until a vaccine is available.

Apple and Google are cooperating to ensure the different phone operating systems are compatible for contact tracing purposes. Apple and Google are also working with health departments across the country to figure out how to roll-out an effective contact tracing Bluetooth-based system that would allow public health departments to create their own contact tracing apps. Despite doubts from some health officials on how useful Apple and Google’s optional systems will be, the two tech companies have developed the digital contact tracing system, and have included it in their latest software updates. Contact tracing apps have already rolled out in other countries. According to MIT Technology Review, so far, there are 25 contact tracing efforts globally. However, none of those apps work in the U.S. Consumers should beware of any attempt to entice them or someone else to download and register for an app.

While app development efforts continue, scammers are tricking people into contact tracing scams using fake apps that steal their personal information. The Better Business Bureau of Connecticut warns people about text messages in their area that appear to be linked to COVID-19 contact tracing, alerting people that they were near someone who tested positive for coronavirus. Police in Washington state are alerting residents of contact tracing scams going around trying to steal sensitive information, including credit card information and Social Security numbers. The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District urges residents not to fall for contact tracing scams, adding that they will never alert people of a positive test via text.

In all of these scams, fraudsters are trying to steal people’s personal information, whether it is by trying to get them to click on unknown malicious links or simply asking for them to provide it. Hackers then have the ability to turn right around and sell the information, which could lead to identity theft. Even when legitimate apps are available, users should check to see if the data they share will be used for marketing purposes without their permission or sold for other purposes.

To avoid a contact tracing scam, people should stay informed on the latest contact tracing details, as well as the most up-to-date COVID-19 information from their state and local health departments. Local health departments will inform people of what a legitimate contact tracer will ask and any protocols they will follow. If anyone gets a text or notification they are not expecting that they were in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, they should ignore it and call their local health department to confirm the validity of the message. They should not provide any information they are asked for, nor should they click any links, open any attachments or download any files.

If anyone believes they have fallen victim to a contact tracing scam or is a victim of identity theft, they can live-chat with an Identity Theft Resource Center expert advisor or call toll-free at 888.400.5530. An advisor can help victims create an action plan on the steps they need to take that are customized to their needs.


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The Federal Trade Commission announced that it will be closed due to a lapse in its funding until the government shutdown ends. That means a number of critical services for consumers, businesses, law enforcement agencies, and other organizations will be temporarily unavailable. Some services—as outlined on the FTC’s website and the announcement on the shutdown—will still be in operation but with reduced staff numbers; this can have a big impact on those services and the timeliness of the support.

Consumers will not be able to file reports or notify the FTC of scams, fraud, or other similar issues during this time. Identity theft reports will also be on hold, as will the National Do Not Call Registry, the Consumer Sentinel Network for law enforcement, and other critical functions.

In the meantime, the non-profit partner Identity Theft Resource Center is ready and willing to help consumers in need and provide valuable insights to any law enforcement agencies or policymakers. The toll-free helpline (888) 400 – 5530 and live chat feature provide immediate answers to questions and concerns about your data, your privacy, and your first steps in the event of suspected identity theft.

ITRC resources can also help keep you informed about the latest scams, fraud, and cybersecurity trends, as well as provide you with actionable steps to avoid becoming a victim. Should you find yourself snared by this kind of criminal activity, our knowledgeable staff can help you take action. The website is also filled with helpful documents that are categorized by the type of consumer issue to assist you in finding the right resources. The Identity Theft Resource Center also has a free ID Theft Help app, which gives you access to resources and tips to protect your identity, a case log feature to help remediate your case as well as the ability to contact our call center advisors.

Fortunately, the FTC’s website and social media channels will still be available with past information, although these outlets will not continue to be updated during the shutdown. The ITRC will continue to post updates and new information at IDTheftCenter.org as well as on its Facebook and Twitter accounts.

During this time, it’s vital that consumers and businesses be extra vigilant about protecting themselves. There’s never a good time to let your guard down when it comes to your identity or your privacy, but at a time when the safeguards are suspended, it’s even more important that individuals use an air of caution when it comes to consumer interactions.

Contact the Identity Theft Resource Center for toll-free, no-cost assistance at (888) 400-5530. For on-the-go assistance, check out the free ID Theft Help App from ITRC.


Read next: The 2018 Impact of Data Breaches and Cybercrime

Pyramid schemes are nothing new. They go by many names and offer a lot of different variations, some of which sound like harmless fun or even legitimate business opportunities. But in the end, not only are pyramid schemes a good way to lose a lot of money and the trust of your friends and family, they’re also illegal.

Last year, ITRC exposed a new Facebook pyramid scheme called the Secret Sisterhood Gift Exchange that left users at risk. It is beginning to resurface again this year and here’s how you can stay ahead of the game. If you’re new to the concept of this kind of scam, a pyramid scheme works by building on your own “meager” investment. You are approached by someone who’s already involved in the scam and told that if you pay up the specified cost, you will then make a multifold return on your “investment” by recruiting others to join in the scam. For example, you may be asked to pay $5,000, which is shared among the people on the level above you; then you’re tasked with recruiting ten other people to each pay $5,000. You will make a portion of their investments, as will the people above you. The selling point for the hapless people you recruit is that they will turn around and each find ten people to join in, and the game goes on.

It’s not hard to see why this is illegal under the endless chain scheme laws. All it takes for one person—possibly even you—to lose all your money and make no return is for someone to not uphold the bargain of finding ten people to each pay in their share.

But what about the ones that don’t require massive cash payments? Over the years, this type of scam has been presented with everything from children’s books to dish towels to panties—seriously, ladies’ underwear, in which you send a pair of undies to the next person on the list, then get ten other people to join in the panty fun. Even the old concept of the chain letter—“send this letter to twenty of your friends within the next twenty-four hours…don’t let the chain be broken or there will be deadly consequences!”—seems harmless on the surface because it doesn’t appear to cost you anything more than some postage or a click of your email forwarding mouse. But that’s not actually what’s at stake.

A new scam that’s making its way around social media is called the “secret sister” game, and it’s nothing more than an old-fashioned pyramid scheme. In this version, new recruits agree to send a $10 gift—perhaps a candle, some gloves, or some fancy lotion—to the names on the list. They will then turn around and recruit ten more people to do the same, thereby ensuring that they receive $10 gifts from thirty-six people down the line. It seems harmless enough, right?

Wrong. First of all, it violates the terms of service for sites like Facebook, and could result in your account being blocked. In this era of privacy, security and identity theft, there’s simply no reason to participate in a “game” of this kind. Even if you end up a winner, what you win is a houseful of cheap gifts from total strangers. The more likely outcome, though, is the possibility that someone is gathering and storing the personal information on everyone who plays along. This kind of threat is too great to ignore for a cheap candle from someone you’ve never met.

For your own sake, and the safety of your identifying information, you need to file this one in the “something for nothing” scam drawer and get rid of it. Whether it’s money, children’s books, chain letters, or even underwear, no one starts these things because they have too much free time on their hands. There’s typically an underlying motive that you can’t see, and in this case the consequences could be lasting damage to your identity.

As always, anyone who believes their identity has been stolen or their personal data has been compromised is invited to connect with the ITRC through our 24-hour toll-free call center at (888) 400-5530, or on-the-go with the new IDTheftHelp app for iOS and Android.