Scammers are taking advantage of COVID-19 panic; don’t fall for ‘cures,’ at-home tests and other pitches
photo by: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
Updated at 1:42 p.m. Friday:
A global pandemic would not be complete without scammers looking to capitalize on people’s fears and anxiety, but you can protect yourself and your loved ones, even from afar, with a little bit of knowledge.
One scam that’s making the rounds involves individuals and businesses selling fake “cures” for the coronavirus disease, COVID-19, according to a recent news release from the office of Stephen McAllister, the U.S. attorney for the District of Kansas. In addition, Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson sent out a list of resources Thursday afternoon that his office compiled for area residents.
Dr. Ryan Neuhofel, a direct primary care provider in Lawrence, said that at this point there is nothing scientifically proven to cure the virus, just as there’s no cure for the common cold. He has heard about people promoting vitamins and supplements as ways to boost your immune system, but he said that in his opinion those are not scientifically valid.
Right now, he said, the only proven treatments occur after patients become very sick and require procedures while hospitalized, such as aggressive suctioning and intubation. As is typical of most viruses, he said, medications aren’t that effective.
“But in terms of the mild to moderate cases of this, it’s the same thing that we would recommend for anybody with a common cold — fluids, rest, getting plenty of sleep,” he said.
As Branson wrote in his note, “If you see ads touting prevention, treatment, or cure claims for the Coronavirus, ask yourself: if there’s been a medical breakthrough, would you be hearing about it for the first time through an ad or sales pitch?”
Neuhofel also pointed out that there have been anecdotes about ibuprofen or NSAIDs, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, possibly worsening outcomes for those who have the virus. He said there’s still uncertainty around that, but he would advise using Tylenol (acetaminophen) for fever and discomfort.
Some companies are starting to sell tests for the virus that people can self-administer. Neuhofel said that for now his recommendation is that nobody should get at-home testing.
“It’s not really proven, and there’s a lot of scams out there,” Neuhofel said. “So I would say, unfortunately, just avoid it.” Also, no at-home tests had been approved by the FDA as of Friday afternoon.
The test that medical providers are using — which Neuhofel said produces about 30% false-negative results anyway — entails a very long swab that must go all the way to the back of the roof of your mouth through your nose. It’s very uncomfortable even when a trained provider does it, and he said he probably wouldn’t trust a specimen collected by a patient, especially if it was collected without being observed by a medical provider.
Some companies are creating fake tests and even trying to sell them to doctors, Neuhofel said. He’s gotten several calls himself, and he thinks some doctors’ offices probably will be desperate and fall for it.
Other scams to note:
• Calls for donations, web scams: Some other fraud schemes the Department of Justice is investigating include malicious websites and apps that appear to share coronavirus-related information to gain and lock access to your devices until payment is received; seeking donations fraudulently for illegitimate or nonexistent charitable organizations; and fake emails from entities posing as the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that will try to steal your personal information, according to the release from McAllister’s office. Branson’s note advises not to click on links from any sources you don’t know.
The National Center for Disaster Fraud is prioritizing the investigation and prosecution of such schemes, and McAllister urges the public to report suspected fraud related to COVID-19 by calling 1-866-720-5721 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, according to the release. You can learn more at justice.gov/coronavirus.
• The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office recently warned of an uptick in age-old scams of people calling pretending to be sheriff’s deputies and claiming that, for one reason or another, you need to pay them money right now. No employee of the sheriff’s office will ever call you and demand money, Jenn Hethcoat, public information officer, has emphasized. If you’re in doubt, call the sheriff’s office at 785-841-0007.
• Watch for Medicare fraud. In his note, Branson advises not to share your Medicare number with anyone other than trusted people and health care providers you know. Scammers commit Medicare fraud by billing for sham tests or treatments related to COVID-19.
• If shopping online, seek reputable stores. A Baldwin City man recently reported that he attempted to purchase four generators from a website that appeared to be based out of China, according to a Wednesday report from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office. However, the company shipped him a hair tie instead of the generators, for a loss of $560, according to the report.
Although a lot of things have been out of stock in local stores, online retailers are running out of high-demand items and people may be more sensitive to preparing for emergencies right now. Be sure to order from websites you already know and trust.
And as a reminder, if buying from large marketplaces like Amazon, make sure you note the small line of text that tells you who is selling and shipping the particular item you’re adding to your cart. Although many third parties sell legitimate items through Amazon, some may be less reputable than others or may charge significantly higher prices.
• Relief checks: Even before Congress on Friday approved legislation that will provide relief checks for every American, the Better Business Bureau was hearing reports of phone and online scammers asking for bank information to “verify” your account, or saying that you qualify for a special government grant, according to the BBB’s website. Don’t give your bank account information or your money to anyone soliciting it with a promise that you’ll get more money back. The BBB has other tips and resources available on its website at bbb.org/council/coronavirus/.
The simplest rules remain: Don’t answer calls from phone numbers you don’t recognize, and don’t offer up any money or personal information to anyone who calls you out of the blue.
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Contact Mackenzie Clark
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