Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
The phone call or text message seems legitimate … and scary. It’s the Hawaii State Department of Health. “You’ve been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19,” the caller says, “and we need some personal information.”
But, wait a minute. How do you know if it’s a real contact tracer trying to stop the spread of coronavirus — or a scammer using a ruse to steal your identity?
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic is a dream come true for scammers. A highly contagious virus with no cure is scary; fear can throw you off your game, keeping you from logical thinking. Checking caller ID won’t help. Those numbers can be spoofed. Just because it says the call is from the health department, doesn’t mean it’s true.
Eleanor Low, an epidemiologist with the Hawaii State Department of Health, says real contact tracers will only ask to verify your address, phone number and date of birth, along with information on who lives in your household and with whom you have been in extended contact.
They will never ask for your Social Security number, medical insurance information or for bank or credit card information and will never ask for money to pay for “services.”
The best advice might be to hang up and verify the call is actually from the health department. Call the Disease Outbreak Control Division at (808) 586-4586. If it’s after hours, leave a message; a duty officer will get back to you. The phone number and information about contact tracing is also on the division’s website, health.hawaii.gov/docd and Facebook page, facebook.com/HI/DOCD
Also beware of any text messages and emails about COVID-19. Don’t click on any links.
Low said Hawai‘i’s contact tracers use the phone and do not text, email or visit in person unless you request them to.
Besides fake contact tracers, there are a number of other coronavirus-related scams circulating around the country. Beware of calls, texts and emails promising COVID-19 testing or cures.
Sometimes con artists will try to get Medicare or other insurance information to false-bill the government or private insurance companies. Another recent scam involved stolen-identity data that was used to file false pandemic-related unemployment claims.
If you feel your identity has been compromised by a scam, consider freezing your credit so that scammers cannot use your personal information to open credit cards in your name without you being notified.
Suspected fraud can be reported to the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-ID-THEFT or the FBI at 202-324-3000. A complete list of federal agencies that investigate fraud is available at justice.gov/criminal-fraud/report-fraud. You can also call the AARP Fraud Watch Network helpline at 877-908-3360 to speak to a trained volunteer and sign up for weekly Watchdog Alerts, or go online to aarp.org/Fraud.
Fraudsters have no qualms about hijacking efforts to help people during the pandemic as a way to steal. If you get a call from a real contact tracer, you should answer questions and quarantine if needed. But be skeptical at first and verify the call is real.
Craig Gima is communications director at AARP Hawai‘i. He is an award-winning multimedia communicator with more than 30 years of experience. A Honolulu native, Gima spent nearly 19 years at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in a variety of reporting, editing and online roles before joining AARP in 2016. Gima graduated cum laude from the University of Southern California.