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COVID-19 has another costly side effect — scams related to vaccine distribution

Utah reports more than 3,300 new COVID-19 cases as officials warn about fraudsters preying on the anxious

Salt Lake City firefighter Mark Petersen gets vaccinated with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine by Seth Christensen, a Salt Lake County nurse, at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021.
Salt Lake City firefighter Mark Petersen gets vaccinated with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine by Seth Christensen, a Salt Lake County nurse, at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The FBI and other federal agencies are warning the public to be on the lookout for fraud schemes related to the COVID-19 vaccines, including efforts to collect money and personal information.

The caution comes as Utah reported 3,318 new cases and seven more deaths from the coronavirus Tuesday, as well as the administration of more than 7,000 additional vaccinations across the state.

With expanded free testing available this week throughout the state, another 9,854 people have been tested for the virus since Monday. The rolling seven-day averages for positive tests is 2,800 per day and 32.14% for percent of positive laboratory tests.

The FBI, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are telling Americans to watch out for offers to get early access to a vaccine or be put on a waiting list by paying a fee.

Other schemes include selling vaccine doses via the mail; people pretending to be from a medical office, insurance company or vaccine center asking for personal information; or claims the government is requiring a vaccination.

In Florida this week, senior citizens were showing up for shots and being turned away because they’d signed up through fake Eventbrite sites that were posing as local health departments and charging for vaccination appointments, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

So far, the fraudsters haven’t struck in Utah yet,

“But I think it’s inevitable,” FBI supervisory special agent Drew Scown said. “Scams related to the vaccine, especially getting in line for the vaccine or trying to get the vaccine quicker, it’s something that these groups of people that engage in these different fraud schemes are probably going to try to use to attack victims.”

Because many Utahns are afraid of contracting the deadly virus and anxious to get vaccinated, others see a chance “to play off of those fears and try to scam them out of money,” he said.

Scown said Utahns trusting nature can make them more susceptible to scams.

“There’s always an opportunity for someone to work an angle and try to figure out a way to scam people out of their money. That’s why it’s always important to be cautious,” he said. “With the vaccine coming out, we have instances of this across the country and we do expect to see it here in Utah as well.”

State officials also want to help Utahns protect themselves against COVID-19-related fraud.

“While we have not heard of these types of scams happening in Utah, it is a good reminder to residents to take the appropriate steps to protect themselves and their personal information,” Utah Department of Health spokesman Tom Hudachko said.

“People should seek information on the COVID-19 vaccine from trusted, reliable resources such as the state or local health departments and health care providers,” he suggested, adding that the state health department “will not make unsolicited calls seeking financial or personal health information.”

As for charging for a vaccine, Hudachko said “vaccine providers are able to charge an administrative fee for providing vaccines. However, insurance companies should cover this fee, and the state Legislature has also set aside funding to ensure everybody can be vaccinated who wants to be.”

The advice from the federal authorities for avoiding scammers is to rely on information from government agencies, such as coronoavirus.utah.gov in Utah, for the latest details of the coronavirus vaccination effort that can vary from state to state.

In Utah, health care workers, including those who provide emergency services; long-term care facility residents and staff; and first responders are currently being vaccinated, with teachers and school staffs up later this month, followed by those over 75 years old, likely in mid-February.

Tuesday, the state reported that 55,981 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered.

The state coronavirus website spells out that as their turn comes up, Utahns “do not need to ‘sign up’ or ‘get on the list’ to be vaccinated. The vaccine should be available to Utahns at a variety of community locations, including your local pharmacy, your doctor’s office, and local health department.”

People should also consult their doctors before getting a shot and not share their personal or medical information with anyone they don’t know, as well as to review their medical bills and insurance explanation of benefits for any suspicious claims.

Currently, there are 510 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah, bringing the total hospitalizations to 11,356 since the start of the pandemic in March. Utah’s death toll has now reached 1,312, with these seven new deaths reported Tuesday:

• Weber County man, between 65 and 84, hospitalized at time of death.

• Salt Lake County man, between 45 and 64, hospitalized at time of death.

• Washington County man, between 65 and 84, hospitalized at time of death.

• Utah County man, between 65 and 84, hospitalized at time of death.

• Washington County woman, older than 85, not hospitalized at time of death.

• Davis County man, between 65 and 84, hospitalized at time of death.

• Washington County woman, older than 85, not hospitalized at time of death.