Both Pfizer and Moderna have begun the rollout of their COVID-19 vaccines, and more vaccines will come. That's the good news.

The bad news? The scams of senior citizens, who are among the first to receive the vaccines, are also underway.

According to an email sent last week by Aging Resources of Central Iowa, which is based in Des Moines, a scam called "The COVID Vaccine Scam" has begun targeting senior citizens, offering "to sell a ticket to 'guarantee' a place on a waiting list for the COVID-19 vaccine."

The agency notes that the vaccine is free and there isn't a waiting list, and that seniors should be prepared should they receive a phone call asking for financial information.

Wapello County Sheriff Don Phillips had not yet heard of the scam, but cautioned against anyone sending money over the phone.

"What's bad is that people will call in a situation like this right now, with a pandemic going on," Phillips said. "These are people who call and want you to send money, which is a tell-tale sign there is no reason to do it. If you owe someone money, you probably know who it is."

COVID-19 has trigged people in many ways in 2020, creating fear as well as exhaustion. Milestones Area Agency on Aging, which has a branch in Ottumwa and has a department dedicated to adult rights and elder abuse prevention, is aware of the scam and offered several solutions for those who feel targeted.

"The truth is, this is no list to pay to put your name on. Government officials will not call asking for your personal information," a Milestones spokesperson told the Courier. "These scammers are using the internet and sending text messages with links asking you to click on them in order to try to retrieve your personal information. There have also been scammers going door-to-door trying to sell early access to the vaccine."

Milestones also outlined what concerned citizens should and should not do:

• If you receive a call asking for personal information, hang up the phone immediately.

• Do not pay to put your name on a list to get the vaccine.

• Do not pay to receive an early dose.

• Do not open any emails or links that look suspicious.

• Do not give out your social security number or any other personal for financial information.

• Always consult with your physician.

• If it's too good to be true, it probably is.

Phillips said the earlier people act the better, because once a scam crosses state lines, it becomes more difficult to track down the culprit when outside agencies get involved. 

"The elderly can be hard of hearing sometimes, so they don't quite understand what's being said," he said. "A caller might say, 'Yeah, it's me in jail.' You have to be cautious. The pandemic scares people, and some people will do whatever they have to do to get the vaccine. You just have to be patient because it's on its way."

According to a report by NBC News, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a fraud alert for vaccine scams Dec. 3. There are also scams in which perpetrators impersonate health care workers, the same report said.

Scammers often lure victims by forcing them to make quick decisions on the phone, according to the Better Business Bureau.

"If you're receiving unsolicited offers for a vaccine, not one, not two, but about 10 red flags should go up," said Nenette Day, assistant special agent in charge of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General said. "There is no way that you under any circumstances should deal with anybody except a known and reputable medical provider or pharmacy."

For those who suspect fraud related to COVID-19, the public is urged to call the National Center for Disaster Hotline at 866-720-5721, or email at disaster@leo.gov. Milestones also will offer assistance by calling 855-410-6222.

Phillips also said any suspected scam can be called into the sheriff's office at 641-684-4350, or the Ottumwa Police Department at 641-683-0661.

— Chad Drury can be reached at cdrury@ottumwacourier.com, and on Twitter @ChadDrury

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