Your Guide to Understanding COVID-19 Scams

Your Guide to Understanding COVID-19 Scams

Updated December 13, 2022

Consumer preferences are evolving as states reopen post-pandemic, but despite growing awareness of COVID-19 communication best practices, scams still abound. This is particularly true when it comes to SMS messages.

Text messaging can be an excellent way to inform the public in an emergency— it’s more immediate than email and more preferable for many people than receiving a phone call. Because of this, many legitimate businesses and organizations are relaying important public health messages via text alerts. While the large majority of brands and organizations are using texting for good, there are some coronavirus scams, involving text messaging and email to beware of. Here’s what you need to know about texting in a time of coronavirus.

Signs of COVID-19 scams

As text messages about COVID-19 become more commonplace, so too are spam text messages aimed at taking advantage of this vulnerable time. It’s not just text messages that fraudsters are using, but email and phone as well. Here are some of the common current coronavirus scams. In addition to these specific coronavirus scams, make sure to recognize characteristic s of text scams you might encounter throughout the year to help stop scammers in their tracks. 

1. Free home testing kits

A current coronavirus scam claims to have free home testing kits which can be sent out if you give personal information. Scammers are referring to these kits by names such as a “COVID-19 kit” or a “Coronavirus package.” They will often ask for information such as your Social Security Number or Medicare number before they release the package. Do not respond to this scam. There are no free home testing kits available for COVID-19. If you are in contact with such an offer you should immediately report this scam to the Federal Trade Commission to help shut these scammers down.

2. COVID-19 cure

Some coronavirus spam text messages claim there is a cure for COVID-19 and encourage the recipient to purchase, which of course would require you to share your personal financial information. There is no cure for COVID-19 and you should not click on any links within a text message that claims to have a cure for COVID-19, nor should you send any personal information or funds to these scammers. The FTC classifies these messages and robocalls as scams. 

3. Text messages about the Stafford Act and buying food

There is currently a text scam making the rounds that claim the President will evoke the Stafford Act within 48 to 72 hours. The text encourages the recipient to stock up on food and forward the text to others. The National Security Council has openly debunked this scam. 

4. World Health Organization impersonations

Some scammers have been sending text messages or making phone calls claiming to be from the World Health Organization and looking for money to support their efforts in the fight against the virus. The World Health Organization has spoken out against these actions and has urged caution when responding to anyone asking for money over the phone. The FTC urges you to get information directly from the World Health Organization website. 

5. Donation scams

Text messages claiming to be from charities, both local and international, can often be scammers in disguise and the FTC has warned this is occurring with great regularity as people are looking to capitalize off the generosity of others during the COVID-19 crisis. Don’t click on the links inside a text message unless you’re familiar with the sender. Also, make sure to fully research any charity before you give money to it. 

6. Government-issued checks scam

Some scammers are taking advantage of the coronavirus stimulus package and are claiming to be from the Social Security Administration, IRS, Census, USCIS, or the FDIC, asking for information via text before they will send out a government-issued check or small business relief loan. You will never be asked for personal information, such as banking information or your Social Security Number, via text. Any claims to the contrary are a phishing scam aimed at gaining access to your personal information, according to the FTC.

7. Duct cleaning scams

One of the coronavirus hoaxes that has been reported to the Canadian Fraud Center and the FTC is a surprising amount of duct-cleaning services that are advertising that they can install filters in your home ventilation system that will prevent COVID-19. It is not proven that COVID-19 spreads through air, instead, it is known that COVID-19 spreads through touching infected surfaces or through droplets propelled onto a close bystander from an infected person who sneezes or coughs.

8. Hoax COVID-19 vaccination kits

The Federal Trade Commission issued a recent warning about online offers for home vaccination kits for COVID-19. There is no approved vaccination for COVID-19 at this time and the FTC warns not to give any personal information to people claiming to have a vaccine.

9. Work-at-home schemes

The FTC has indicated that scammers are using robo-calls to pitch hoax work-from-home scenarios with promises that seem too good to be true. If the job is offering high pay with few requirements, it’s probably not legitimate. Also, while remote work is becoming more commonplace under current social distancing guidelines, a study by FlexJobs shows that up to 20% of job seekers are unwittingly fooled by work-from-home scams. What to watch for? If you’re asked for personal financial details at any point in the interview process, this is certainly a red flag, according to the FTC.

10. Teas, essential oils, and colloidal silver claims

The FTC and FDA collectively sent letters to seven companies claiming to have natural cures for COVID-19. The FDA insists these claims are unsupported and the products are unapproved and deceptive or scientifically unsupported claims in this matter could violate federal law. The seven companies targeted were:

  • Vital Silver
  • Quinessence Aromatherapy Ltd.
  • N-ergetics
  • GuruNanda, LLC
  • Vivify Holistic Clinic
  • Herbal Amy LLC
  • The Jim Bakker Show

11. Grandparent scams

In a grandparent scam, the scammer texts or emails the grandparent pretending to be a grandchild and claiming they are stuck in the hospital or a dangerous situation in a foreign country and need money wired to them in order to get out. Scammers are using the urgency of the coronavirus to make these types of scams even more convincing, according to the FTC.

If you are contacted in this way by someone claiming to be your grandchild, resist the urge to take immediate action. Instead, ask specific proof of life questions, try to get your grandchild on the phone, and verify their story with other friends or family members. Don’t send gift cards, wire transfers, or email cash.

12. IRS overpayment scams

One current coronavirus scam involves the scammer sending you a fake check. If you get a check that looks official but is for more than the $1,200 stimulus amount, be wary. This check will likely soon be followed up with a call from a scammer claiming to the IRS and insisting you have been overpaid. They will ask you to cash the check, keep the $1,200 and send the rest back via a wire transfer or gift card. This is a scam that will leave you owing money to your bank as the check is fake, which can take weeks for your bank to realize.

13. Paying for COVID-19 vaccine scam

Here’s a new one that appeared in 2021 and will likely be around for most of 2022. The COVID-19 vaccine is free in the United States. If you encounter someone who wants to charge you for the vaccine or any administrative costs to sign up to receive the vaccine, this is a sign of a scam. You can receive the vaccine at establishments that have been set up by state and federal governments.

What legitimate government text messages have in common

The typical emergency text message about COVID-19, or coronavirus, is sent from a short code and includes actionable information necessary to keep the public informed about policies or procedures that are changing in real time. Below is an example of a typical text (though not necessarily one sent through SlickText).

coronavirus text alert

Finding legitimate COVID-19 text alerts

Texting can be a convenient and fast way to stay on top of the changing situation that COVID-19 presents us with. Here are some places you can look to find legitimate COVID-19 text alerts.

1. Local government alerts

Many municipalities and counties have their own text alert systems to advise residents in case of an emergency. For example, the state of California has a centralized, CalAlerts program that allows you to sign up for text alerts in multiple counties (depending on where you live or work). Here’s how to search for relevant text alerts in your area:

    • State-wide: Go to your state’s official website, ending in .gov, and review their emergency alert options. 
    • County-wide: Investigate to see if your local county has a text alert program. Some counties are initiating text alerts in response to COVID-19. For example, Cook County in Illinois just launched AlertCook on March 19, 2020, which residents can opt in to by texting a text word to a short code. As your county might just be adding a similar program, be sure to check the news section of their website or email county officials. 
    • Municipality: Since your municipality is likely to have updates on local laws, closures and policies that impact you during coronavirus lockdowns, it can be useful to get on their text alert list to hear of changes immediately. Many cities have these programs, each with local names. Here are the text alert websites for the top 50 DMAs in the United States that have text alert programs. You can sign up online to start receiving SMS updates. 

If your city isn’t on this list, that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have a text alert system as many smaller municipalities also have an SMS strategy in place for emergencies. Visit your municipality’s website to find out if they offer a similar emergency communication service.

2. Business text message lists or contact tracing

You’ve probably been receiving a lot of emails from businesses telling you how they’re planning to handle COVID-19. While these emails might not be very important to you (especially if you’ve forgotten that you even signed up for their newsletter in the first place) you might find that local businesses you frequent have text message alerts that actually are important to you. As policies are changing daily, updates from these businesses could change your daily plans. Consider signing up for text alerts from these types of businesses:

  • Grocery stores 
  • Pharmacies
  • Restaurants
  • Delivery services
  • Utility providers

You might want to consider unsubscribing from updates sent by businesses you no longer frequent and don’t intend to return to so that you can pay attention to the news from businesses that matter to you right now.

3. Healthcare alerts

For updated information on how your healthcare providers are dealing with COVID-19, sign up for their text list. For example, OptimizeRX has launched a free coronavirus text alert service. The World Health Organization also has a WhatsApp bot that texts you COVID-19 facts. Also, you might want to inquire to see if your health insurance company offers text updates. These texts can give you alerts or reminders about:

  • Appointment reminders and scheduling
  • Testing procedures 
  • Medication refill reminders
  •  Follow up care
  • Two-way texting with a clinician
  • Educational content

Text alerts from various stakeholders in the healthcare field can become valuable resources you as you navigate the healthcare system during the coronavirus pandemic.

4. Church text list

Many churches use texting to stay in touch with their members and keep them updated on service times or changes (this could include live stream coverage) as well as service initiatives and words of encouragement from the pastor. If you attend church and are not on your church’s text list, this could be a valuable resource for you during a coronavirus lockdown.

5. School district mass text messages

Text alerts from school districts (and universities) can provide information on:

  • Changing school closure dates
  • Educational testing procedures
  • Policies for retrieving personal property left behind at school
  • Updates on the school calendar
  • Educational resources

If you aren’t already on your district or school text list, now’s the time to sign up.

6. Workplace text alerts

Some workplaces have enacted text alerts to help inform employees in a succinct manner. These texting strategies will only become more crucial as more workplaces become remote in light of COVID-19 health concerns. Check to see if your workplace has a mass texting list that you can sign up for.