WASHINGTON (WHSV) — As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, one of the most important tools health department officials have to fight the spread of the virus is contact tracing.
It’s the process through which officials identify everyone who came into close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 and reaches out to them to have them quarantine and monitor their symptoms, hopefully cutting off any potential community spread.
Usually, a state’s health department hires contact tracers. In Virginia, the health department is currently in the process of hiring some 1,000 new contact tracers to ramp up the state’s workforce.
They'll work with someone who's been infected with COVID-19 to get the names and phone numbers of everyone they were in close contact with while possibly infectious. The contact tracers generally keep those names and numbers in an online system and first reach out to people who had contact with an infected person through a text message, letting them know that they'll be getting a call from a specific number.
But scammers are taking advantage of the vital contact tracing work going on to try and steal people's personal information and money.
A legitimate text from a contact tracer will let you know the health department they're representing and tell you to expect a call from a phone number. Then, the caller will not ask you for any personal information, but will tell you about the situation, your potential exposure, and give you instructions. At the end of the call, they may ask if you'd like to enroll in a text message program that will send out daily health and safety reminders throughout your 14-day quarantine.
But they won’t ask you for money or for information like your Social Security number, bank account, or credit card number. There’s no reason they would need any of that information to let you know you may have contracted COVID-19.
But that isn't stopping scammers from pretending to be contact tracers and taking advantage of how the system works by sending text messages or making phone calls. The difference is big, though. Scam messages from fake contact tracers will include a link in the message for you to click, telling you that you need to follow the link to learn more or find out what to do.
That's not how any legitimate contact tracing message works. Do not click the link.
If you do, it will likely download software onto your device, giving scammers access to your personal and financial information.
Ignore the message, delete it, and, depending on if your phone gives you the option, report it as spam.
There are several ways you can filter unwanted text messages or stop them before they reach you, according to the FTC:
- Your phone may have an option to filter and block messages from unknown senders or spam
- Your wireless provider may have a tool or service that lets you block texts messages.• Some call-blocking apps also let you block unwanted text messages.
Here are several other steps you can take to protect yourself from text scammers:
- Protect your online accounts by using multi-factor authentication. It requires two or more credentials to log in to your account, which makes it harder for scammers to log in to your accounts if they do get your username and password
- Enable auto-updates for the operating systems on your electronic devices. Make sure your apps also auto-update so you get the latest security patches that can protect from malware
- Back up the data on your devices regularly, so you won’t lose valuable information if a device gets malware or ransomware.
For more information, the FTC has a resource on how to recognize and report text scams here.
This is just one of many scams through which people have tried to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic for their own personal gain. You can find information on many more at whsv.com/features/scams.
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