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OP-ED: Now seniors face another threat: COVID-19 fraud

David J. Freed
U.S. Attorney

As U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, I enforce federal laws in an area that is home to many seniors. Unfortunately it is also home, and an inviting target, to fraudsters looking to turn crisis into opportunity. While anyone can be a fraud victim, we have seen that many COVID-19-related fraud schemes will target or heavily affect the elderly.

My office knows that financial criminals associate seniors with money: savings accounts, mortgage-free homes, and Medicare numbers that criminals use to commit health care fraud. Add to this seniors’ heightened vulnerability during the pandemic and it becomes harder for fraudsters not to focus on seniors.        

According to the Centers for Disease Control, seniors appear to face a higher risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19 illness. Also according to the CDC, seniors — unsurprisingly — are now at higher risk of experiencing stress, which can show up as fear, worry, uncertainty and loneliness. Criminals feed on these emotions.  

In response to the pandemic, I appointed a COVID-19 Fraud Coordinator to serve as the legal counsel for our office on matters relating to COVID-19, direct the prosecution of COVID-19-related crimes, and to conduct outreach and awareness activities. 

Scammers are clever and will use any crisis to their advantage. We need only look to events such as 9/11 and various natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes as examples. COVID-19 has provided a new entry point for fraud. These are just a few examples of current scams:

Fake cure and vaccine scams: Although there are medications that may treat symptoms, there is no cure for COVID-19. Nor is there an FDA-approved vaccine for the virus. If you see on-line sales of alleged COVID-19 cures or vaccines, or someone contacts you directly with a sales pitch, do not buy the product. Report the incident or information to one of the hotline numbers I give you below.

The same goes for phishing emails from entities posing as the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These organizations do not reach out to random citizens.

Imposter scams: The scam entails fraudsters calling older adults to obtain Social Security and Medicare identification numbers by posing as Medicare representatives calling to send the senior’s beneficiaries free masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. All the senior needs to do to receive the free items is speak or text their Social Security or Medicare identification numbers into their phones.       

These are swindles. There are no door-to-door sales of legitimate COVID-19 tests. No legitimate government organization will unexpectedly call, text or show up at your door asking for your Medicare or Social Security number. Do not share them. Similarly, do not share your debit card number or other banking information in response to unsolicited requests. Instead, report the suspicious activity.  

In addition, be wary of unsolicited telephone calls and e-mails from individuals claiming to be IRS and Treasury employees. Remember IRS’s first form of communication is by mail — not by phone.     

What we can do about it: Protecting seniors from fraud crimes is a priority for me, especially during this health emergency. I am all in. So is the rest of my office and the federal, state and local agents with whom we work.

What I need you to do: Keep us informed. Please report suspected COVID-19 fraud, no matter the age of the intended victim, to the National Center for Disaster Fraud at 1-866-720-5721. Where the intended victim is a senior, there is a second reporting option — the National Elder Fraud Hotline at 1-833-FRAUD-11, which the Department of Justice launched earlier this year.

Do not be embarrassed to report scams or attempted scams. When I recently spoke to a group of seniors, I played a scam voice message that I had been constantly receiving.  This happens to people all over the country, every day. If you report, we can help. Criminals surely use new methods to exploit the COVID-19 crisis worldwide. Stay alert and stay informed about common fraud schemes related to COVID-19.

We are all in this together.

— David J. Freed is the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.