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Security & privacy

5 signs the coronavirus ‘contact tracing’ texts you’re getting are a scam

COVID-19 is exposing the dark underbelly of the web for all to see, and millions of people are suffering because of it. You have to be pretty twisted to try and scam people out of their savings during the worst economic crisis in the past 50 years, but that’s exactly what these cybercriminals are doing by leveraging the pandemic to their advantage.

Millions of jobs may have been lost in the past few months, but recovery efforts are already kicking into gear. Financial relief like stimulus checks have been put into motion, and new jobs like contact tracing are opening up. Unfortunately, scammers are paying attention to the news, too. Tap or click here to see how they’re stealing unemployment benefits.

And now, the vital work performed by contact tracers is being hijacked by enterprising scammers desperate for your cash. They’re impersonating contact tracers as they try to steal your info, and they’re pulling out all the stops to seem as convincing as possible. Will anybody trust a call from real contact tracers after dealing with these scammers?

The only contacts these scammers will trace are ones they can steal from

The FTC has issued a warning regarding the rise of a new kind of scam that’s just timely enough to damage American recovery efforts. By posing as contact tracers, these fraudsters are tricking people into ponying up personal information and breaking the trust in real contact tracers that can help keep the country safe and healthy.

Here’s how it works: Scammers will send you a text message with a generic boilerplate spiel about how you were exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. The message will include a link where you can supposedly learn more or sign up for testing.

But clicking the link is extremely dangerous. These text messages contain malicious links that can install tracking software on your device capable of stealing personal information. Some may even include links to phishing websites where you’ll input the information yourself, which makes it even harder to catch the people responsible.

Ultimately, the FTC says it fears this new effort may make people wary to take real contact tracing efforts seriously as the pandemic drags on. It’s a shame because this vital job not only can help slow the spread of new cases, it’s high-paying and perfect for many Americans that may be out of work. Tap or click here to see how much contact tracers get paid.

How can I spot a scam contact tracer?

Thankfully, the FTC issued detailed guidelines on what to expect from legitimate contact tracing efforts. Messages from local health departments will not include links whatsoever, and will instead give you a heads up that a call is coming your way — complete with the phone number it will come from. As of now, scammers haven’t caught on to this yet.

When a real tracer calls you, they won’t ask you for any financial or identifying information like a Social Security Number. What they may ask you for is whether or not you want to enroll in text alerts going forward. Any caller who asks for personally identifying information aside from that is a scammer, and you should hang up immediately.

Here are some red flags to watch out for if you get a text claiming to be from a contact tracer:

  1. Poor English: Many scam operations are based outside the U.S. Even if they have an American area code, it’s possible to spoof it easily. Watch out for unusual spelling and grammar, especially when it claims to come from a government source.
  2. A link: Real contact tracing texts are notifications of an upcoming call. They will not include links for you to sign up or provide information. Ignore any texts that include a link.
  3. Requests for personal data: The only information you’ll be asked during a legitimate contact tracing session is who you’ve been in contact with, and potentially their phone numbers. Even then, this kind of information would be asked during the call, not upfront in a text. Ignore any texts that request personal information about you or others.
  4. Alarmist language: Some of these texts will use frightening or sensationalized language to get you to act urgently. If you get scared enough to click the link they include, you’re already in trouble. Real contact tracers will work with you professionally and refrain from alarming you. They have to do this all day, after all. They don’t need the stress.
  5. Requests for money: Anything asking you to submit a payment of some kind can be disregarded. Contact tracing programs shouldn’t cost you anything to be a part of. Any requests for payments in the form of Bitcoin or gift cards are also major red flags.

To protect yourself, the FTC also recommends enabling two-factor authentication for all your important accounts, as well as potentially activating “Do Not Disturb” on your device to block spam text messages. Tap or click here to see how to activate 2FA for your favorite online accounts.

In the end, these scams can’t hurt you so long as you avoid being tricked. Since fraudsters around the world are stepping up their tactics, this won’t be an easy task. Stay safe, stay vigilant and whatever you do, please don’t click on links you don’t recognize. It’s a recipe for disaster that no one can afford today.

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