The push to obtain digital proof of vaccination provides an opportunity for scammers, consumer protection experts warn.
“The consumers are confused, and the scammers know it,” Steve McFarland, president and CEO of the Los Angeles/Silicon Valley chapter of the Better Business Bureau, told Yahoo News.
The BBB has seen an uptick in calls from people facing scams regarding their online vaccination records.
“What’s going on is that [scammers are] claiming that you can sign up for a QR code, maybe some type of a verification with them, and all you gotta do is pay a fee,” McFarland said. “Two, three weeks ago, we had people that were sending pictures of their vaccination card over social media, and of course that was giving your private information over the net, and scammers were jumping all over that.”
Given out at the time someone is first immunized for COVID-19, the paper vaccination record card verifies the person’s identity and birthday, the type of shot received and the date it was administered. Since the paper cards are easily lost or damaged, several states and companies have moved to transfer that information into a digital format that can be stored on a cellphone. There it can be shown as proof of vaccination that is sufficient for travel or access to venues that require it.
But while the digital version has its advantages, setting it up also presents security risks. Several bogus apps have sprung up in recent months, seeking to lure people into entering their personal financial information.
“They want to do it right now before you have time to think about it, before you have any time to do any investigation,” cybersecurity expert Matt Malone told Yahoo News. “The best thing a user can do to stop from getting scammed is take a breath.”
Malone, the director of cybersecurity for Vistrada, a New York technology and marketing company, is no stranger to the threat posed by those looking to exploit digital vaccination records. He and his wife were on their way to Hawaii a few weeks ago and saw potential opportunities for scammers.
“I was downloading this safe app. I noticed that there were multiple other apps with very similar names that were not part of it … and my little cybersecurity brain went off and I was like, ‘ohhh,’” he said with a chuckle. “This is how they get you.”
New York is currently the only state issuing digital COVID-19 vaccine records through a state-run app. But other states, such as Hawaii and California, have partnered with private companies to create something similar.
An example of a private company issuing digital vaccine records is GoGotVax, which created VaxYes. Its site allows a person to securely input vaccination information for a digital record that can be added to an Apple Wallet or Android phone. The company said this could be useful for traveling, attending live events or returning to work.
Like wearing masks, however, vaccine passports have become a political flashpoint in America. Sixteen states have banned requirements for the cards, either by government-run entities or even private companies. Meanwhile, states such as Oregon, California and Hawaii allow private businesses and some government offices to require proof of vaccination.
With millions of Americans looking to transfer the information on their paper cards into a digital format, it was inevitable that scammers would rush in.
To avoid getting ripped off, the BBB recommends that people research whether an app or website is legitimate before entering any private information. For example, Malone said he went to an official state of Hawaii website, where he found links and information it recommended.
“There’s scammers out there [saying], ‘Well, I can send ya over a vaccination card for $50. Just give me your credit card or some gift card information. I’ll do it for ya,’” McFarland said. “Well, people are doing it, and people call us complaining about it. That they wanted a card and they applied for a phony card — they admit it — but yet they want their money back.”
It’s also important to double-check to make sure that a link leads to the correct URL, McFarland said. Scammers often buy an official-looking link with a letter or two out of order or spelled incorrectly.
In May, the Federal Trade Commission posted a warning message to its website, saying that “there’s no standard way to prove you’ve been vaccinated or tested negative,” and that as a result the opportunities for fraud abound.
“If you get a call, email, or text from someone saying they’re from the federal government, and asking you for personal information or money to get a national vaccine certificate or passport, that’s a scam,” said the FTC release.
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