Banking

Credit unions sound alarm on COVID-19 vaccination scams

Credit unions are increasingly sounding the alarm about COVID-19 vaccination scams.

The scams can come in a variety of forms, but the common denominator involves taking a consumer’s personal or banking data with the promise of securing a vaccination appointment.

COVID-19 vaccinations are generally open to anyone age 16 or older and there is no cost to get the shot or make an appointment, but high demand and the often difficult process of getting an appointment have made some Americans susceptible to fraud.

“Anytime something like this happens, whether it’s a pandemic or a national disaster, that’s what fraudsters use to scam good people,” said Moe Tayba, senior manager of fraud at the $13.5 billion-asset Alliant Credit Union in Chicago.

Alliant posted information warning members about scams in a blog post on its website and in member communications, but it has also informed employees about the risks so that staff in the contact center can assist members who reach out with concerns.

“We’re very aware and careful in ensuring our members know it’s out there and to be careful,” Tayba said. “Everybody’s getting the vaccine and they want to be the first in line to get it, but there are some requirements, and you have fraudsters saying, ‘I can get it for you but you have to do this and that.’”

Tayba said that, despite Illinois recently opening eligibility up to everyone age 16 and older, vaccines are “not really accessible. … Even though the medical folks are saying you can go get the vaccine, for example, I can’t even get it. I don’t know how other cities are, but until that goes down I think we will still see scams.”

COVID-19 scams may be new, but efforts to defraud consumers are not, and many likened these threats to romance scams, computer take-over attempts or other motives bad actors use to scam consumers.

While the risk to individual institutions is comparable to those threats, bigger concerns arise if fraudsters can get a member’s credit card or Social Security number, or gain access to their banking accounts, which could lead to account take-over risks, said Cyndie Martini, CEO of Member Access Processing, a cybersecurity and payments consultancy for credit unions.

“Part of the concern is that if they’re asking for information that could be used to complete a card transaction, in that case that is a fraud situation that the credit union has to manage,” Martini said.

The good news, Martini said, is that most credit unions have bulked up their fraud prevention tools in the last five years and “are prepared to manage that better than they have been in the past.”

The number of credit unions raising awareness about vaccination scams has also risen as the shots become more widely available. With so many Americans already vaccinated, “this is not going to last very long,” Martini said. While credit union marketing departments may want to do a promotional blitz to alert members to the threat, she said, common sense may be the best defense.

“As consumers, it’s buyer beware,” Martini said. “At some point, you own the responsibility for doing your homework when you’re on the web. I don’t know what more credit unions can do.”

One credit union that was on the ball early with alerts for these scams was Delta Community Credit Union in Atlanta.

“It wasn’t to sound an alarm or be reactive in any way — it’s more of a current-events type thing,” said Abdul Hussain, chief information security officer at the $7.7 billion-asset credit union.

Delta Community was not aware of any specific threats and instead posted about the scams on its blog as part of its ordinary financial education efforts, which include notifications around everything from mortgage scams to wire fraud, identity theft and more, Hussain said.

“I think there’s a lot of misinformation that always floats around and it’s not just tied to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hussain said. “These types of things are always going to exist. If you’ve had the vaccine or if you haven’t, you could still be targeted.”

Tayba said the similarities to other scams has helped Alliant protect members and understand how to proceed once a fraud attempt takes place.

“They know they were scammed but they don’t want to say, ‘Yes, I was,’ because once you step back and think of the actions you took, you think, ‘How did I fall for that?’” Taybe said. “There’s a lot of embarrassment, so that’s one thing we always try to break through with our members and say, ‘We understand, it happens, we’re trying to help you and educate you so it doesn’t happen again.’”

That’s because COVID-19 vaccine scams may just be the first threat.

“Once fraudsters have a target they’ve been successful with, they’ll come back and try other ways,” Tayba said.


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