Don’t panic if you get a phone call, text message or email from someone who says they’re a public health official warning that you may have been exposed to the coronavirus.
It may be a scam.
Legitimate officials are calling and even visiting people who may have been exposed. That’s called contact tracing, and it’s a key part of Pennsylvania’s plan to limit the spread of the virus as the economy reopens.
But scammers are exploiting that process.
Since we all could be exposed to the virus, we need to be able to recognize when contact tracing is real and when it’s a fraud.
According to the Better Business Bureau, frauds are occurring by text message, email, social media messaging and phone.
Text, email and social media scammers are trying to load malware on phones and computers by duping people into clicking on links that purport to lead to instructions about how to protect yourself from the virus. That malware then can be used to steal your account passwords.
An example of a text scam, according to the Federal Trade Commission: “Someone who came in contact with you tested positive or has shown symptoms for COVID-19 & recommends you self-isolate/get tested. More at (link).”
Scam robocalls claim to be part of “contact and tracing efforts.” The recorded messages claim you’ve been exposed. They prompt you to stay on the line or enter a number to speak to a representative, who then starts asking you to verify personal information.
The questions may seem innocent at first — name, address, date of birth — but could eventually probe for financial information or data that can be used to commit identity theft.
Legitimate tracers will not request Social Security, bank account or credit card numbers. Financial information and government identification numbers are not needed.
There’s another easy way to tell if you’re dealing with a scammer — if the supposed contact tracer identifies by name the person who may have spread the virus to you.
That information is confidential. Real contact tracers won’t tell you.
The state Department of Health is handling tracing for most of the state, except for the six counties (Bucks, Montgomery, Allegheny, Chester, Erie and Philadelphia) and the four cities (Allentown, Bethlehem, Wilkes-Barre and York) that have their own health departments.
The state will contact people by phone only, spokesman Nate Wardle said. In the northeast part of the state, the department is partnering with Lehigh Valley Health Network on contact tracing.
The hospital system has been doing tracing for people who get a positive test administered in its facilities, Spotlight PA reported, and is coordinating with the Allentown and Bethlehem health departments to minimize duplicate tracing.
In Allentown, contact tracers may call, email or visit, depending on what type of information they were given by the infected person, Health Director Vicky Kistler said.
“We may not be given much,” she told me.
Contact tracers will identify themselves as being from a health department. In Allentown, the health bureau’s name or “city of Allentown” may appear on caller ID. Visits will be done by someone in a city vehicle with a city identification badge.
In some cases, you may be expecting them.
All Pennsylvania residents who test positive for the coronavirus will be asked for the names and contact information of people they’ve interacted closely with, so contact tracing can begin.
People who are infected can help tracers in a big way — by telling friends, family, co-workers and others that they gave health authorities their name and that they should expect to be contacted.
Then those people won’t be surprised to get a phone call or visit, and won’t have to wonder whether they are being scammed.
Tracers will explain the need to stay isolated for 14 days, and ask for contact information so a health official can check with them daily.
The simplest way to do that is to enroll in the state’s Sara Alert system, Kistler said. Anyone who provides a cell phone number or email address will get a daily text message or email asking if they are healthy and staying home. Those who say they have coronavirus symptoms will be directed to get tested.
Recipients only need to check a box on the text or email. They won’t be asked to click on a link to provide that information. If you are prompted to go to a website to answer the questions, that’s a scam.
Be suspicious of unexpected or unsolicited text messages regarding contact tracing. You can only get texts or emails through the state’s Sara Alert system by invitation, which will be set up in the initial phone call or visit from a health official.
People who are unable to receive daily text messages or emails, or choose not to, will receive a phone call daily, Kistler said.
If you get a phone call, text message or email that seems shady, don’t answer any questions.
Contact the state Health Department (877-PA-HEALTH) or your county or local health department if you have one (Allentown 610-437-7760, Bethlehem 610-865-7083). They can tell you if the inquiry was legitimate.
Morning Call columnist Paul Muschick can be reached at 610-820-6582 firstname.lastname@example.org