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'I feel terrible for these victims' COVID vaccine scams spiking

Experts say scammers see the call for vaccine trial volunteers as an opportunity.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As COVID cases are spiking nationwide, demand for an effective vaccine is intensifying. But experts say scammers are using that to their advantage.

FOCUS investigative reporter Paula Vasan has received multiple emails about volunteers being needed for COVID vaccine studies, promising up to around $1,200 in payment. Experts revealed those emails were likely scams. 

“My suspicion was that it was a fraudulent email," said LaDonna Koebel, director with the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office.

Koebel tracks scams across the state at the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office. Vasan showed her the emails she received. 

“What made you so suspicious?” asked Vasan. 

“It’s unsolicited. It’s not coming from a company or legitimate address that would be conducting the research study," said Koebel. "So it’s not an email from the University of Kentucky, Baptist Health or another legitimate medical provider.” 

She said the promise of money is another red flag. 

“If someone receives this email, what do you suggest they do?” asked Vasan.

“Just delete it. Clicking on any links within an email can install malware on your computer which would then lead to identity theft down the road," said Koebel.

We tried verifying the authenticity of the email ourselves, reaching out to the companies listed: Digitech Web Resources and Acurian. We never got a response. 

“Don’t fall for one of these scams," said Koebel.

Since the start of the pandemic, her office has seen dollar losses from scams multiply. 

“We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars per month lost to these scams," she said. 

Since March, victims have lost nearly $3.2 million to scams, according to data compiled by the Kentucky Attorney General's Office. That’s a more than 745% increase from the same period last year, before COVID-19.

Credit: WHAS11 FOCUS Team

That’s even as statistics show only 1 in 44 people report them in the first place, said Koebel.

“We know scams are historically underreported," she said.

And she doesn’t expect scammers to let up anytime soon. 

 “Around the country COVID cases are on the rise. Do you expect that we’ll see more emails like this?” asked Vasan.

“I do," said Koebel. "Scammers are going to take advantage of any avenue they can whether it be clinical trials, a cure.” 

So if you want to participate in a clinical trial, how should you go about it?”

“Find a reputable medical provider," said Koebel. 

Some more advice? Consult with your medical provider about available trials and the risks involved. 

“I feel terrible for these victims… They want to help people, they want to be part of a clinical trial to help people find a cure," she said. 

RESOURCES

Tips from the Better Business Bureau on how to avoid clinical trial scams:

  1. Look up the domain. You can use lookup.icann.org to look up the URL. Look for warning signs such as a very recent registration date or a registration in a foreign country.
  2. If you receive a message about a study and want to confirm whether it's true, go directly to (or do a web search for) the organization's website for further information. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Library of Medicine (NLM) also maintain ClinicalTrials.gov, a free searchable database of clinical studies on a wide range of diseases. If there is no government agency, university, or hospital mentioned, it's likely a scam.

To find legitimate COVID-19 vaccine trial information click on Kentucky.

Kentuckians should report scams or identity theft to the Office of the Attorney General by filing an online report at ag.ky.gov/scams or by calling the Consumer Protection Hotline at 1-888-432-9257.

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