Elysee Bernstein received a call July 10 from someone claiming to work for the Florida Department of Health, telling her she had tested positive for COVID-19.
She was confused since she had already received a negative result online from the Lincoln Park testing center she visited in Fort Lauderdale. The caller asked Bernstein to provide her Social Security number, address, name and phone number. She feared it was a scam and immediately hung up.
“Once they started asking for all my information I instantly knew,” Bernstein said. “But if I hadn’t gotten my results [already], I probably would’ve given my information.”
Bernstein and many other Floridians are worried about responding to contact tracing calls. State and local a governments have repeatedly urged people to answer contact tracer questions, which they say are a major key to help control the surging spread of COVID-19. But they also acknowledge there could be scammers looking to exploit a public health crisis. The Attorney General’s Office is even looking into some complaints.
Compounding the suspicions: Dozens of people have reported that a phone number used by one of the state’s contact tracing contractors has popped up as a spam call. The unease goes beyond the one phone number. There are anecdotal reports like Bernstein’s along with rumors circulating on social media of fake COVID-19 test result calls and other phone phishing scams.
The phone number Bernstein was contacted by — 833-917-2880 — has been the subject of nearly 60 complaints, all alleging similar concerns that it was a scam call, according to 800Notes, an online directory where people can publish complaints about unknown callers. But it’s a real contact tracing number.
Maximus, a company the Florida Department of Health hired for contact tracing throughout Florida, confirmed that it is using 833-917-2880 for its staff to call residents who have been in contact with an individual who tests positive for COVID-19.
But for some reason, the phone number has been coming up on people’s caller ID logs as spam, Maximus management told the Miami Herald.
“Our understanding is that the telephone providers have spam blocking tools to protect their customers which we believe may be the reason why citizens are receiving [phone] calls that identify as spam,” Maximus said in an emailed statement from the FDOH. “We are working with the telephone carriers to see if they can modify their blocking configurations which would help alleviate much of the confusion.”
Calls are marked as “Scam Likely” using artificial intelligence that spots if a phone number is displaying unusual behavior, T-Mobile spokesperson Roni Singleton said. “Spoofed calls look very different than direct calls.”
The FDOH did not respond when asked why Bernstein would have been asked for her Social Security number and received a different COVID-19 result than she previously had. The statement from Maximus underlined the public health importance of the calls.
“Maximus will attempt to call consumers three times in case they were initially hesitant to answer the phone call,” the company said. “We all have a shared responsibility in slowing this global pandemic.”
The state is familiar with scammers taking advantage of a crisis; fake donation pages popped up after Hurricane Dorian and some homeowners fell victim to insurance fraud schemes during Hurricane Irma and home repair scams during Hurricane Michael.
In June, Attorney General Ashley Moody issued a consumer alert on June 22 telling Floridians to be careful when answering COVID-19 contact tracing calls. Her office has received two complaints about contact tracing calls and is investigating whether they were scams, according to Kylie Mason, the office’s spokesperson.
One complaint received July 7 from a Clearwater woman stated that she got a voicemail from the 833-917-2880 number with a person claiming to be from the FDOH and wanting to talk about her COVID-19 test results. The woman felt the call was suspicious and was concerned that the number came up as a scam call on her cellphone and that there were reports of the number being a scam online.
Another complaint the office received on June 22 came from an Orange Park woman stating that she received a call from 904-755-2432, which is an official number for the Clay County Health Department. The call from the Clay County DOH was not unexpected, as one of her children had tested positive for COVID-19. But, she was concerned about whether the call was real because of some of the personal questions the caller asked.
Mason urged anyone suspicious of a scam to report it to the Attorney General’s Office at 1-866-9NO-SCAM or to file a complaint online at MyFloridaLegal.com.
Some local governments have responded to public concerns with web and social media messages. Alachua County posted on its website that some people who have been tested for COVID-19 might get a call from the number “asking for name and date of birth, and may be provided with a negative test result.”
The City of Boca Raton shared a Facebook post on Tuesday stating that the Maximus phone number was not spam. The post stated that the caller will confirm a last name and date of birth, then go forward with the call. It highlighted that “fake calls” would seek personal information such as a Social Security number or credit card information.
Chrissy Gibson, spokesperson for the City of Boca Raton, wrote in an email that the post was shared to inform residents about the contact tracing process and to also make them aware of scams.
“It’s always a good reminder that people shouldn’t give out Social Security numbers and credit card information over the phone,” she said, “and with the increased number of calls people may be receiving due to contact tracing, we thought the timing of the post was appropriate.”
Gibson said she didn’t know why the caller had asked Bernstein for her Social Security number and urged her to contact the FDOH or Attorney General’s Office.
But advice from agencies on the calls has differed a bit.
Unlike what the Boca Raton and Alachua County said, the attorney general’s alert in June stated that a contact tracer should not ask for a birth date, as real contact tracers should already know the information for the individual they are calling and should only ask someone to verify the information.
The tell-tale signs of a scam call include requests for a Social Security number, bank account information or some type of payment
“If a person does receive a call, the agent will identify themselves by stating their name and asking to speak directly with the individual,” said Jason Mahon, spokesperson for Florida’s Division of Emergency Management. “The agent will then verify the individual’s date of birth. The agent may also ask for a phone number, the date the individual was tested and the location the individual was tested at.”
There have also been rumors on social media of people claiming to receive calls with a positive coronavirus test result after leaving a testing site without getting tested because of long lines. But companies for testing sites in Florida say that procedures make that just about impossible.
Brooke Liddle, the spokesman for American Medical Response, a company that administers COVID-19 testing at four sites in South Florida, said it is “highly unlikely” for the rumor to be true as people getting tested do not give their personal information until after they are swabbed. No personal information would ever make it to a lab without an actual test sample. So, there would be no way they could notify people who skipped out on getting tested. He said AMR has received no complaints of such incidents.
Aldo Benedetto, vice president of marketing for MD Now, which operates COVID-19 testing at its urgent care facilities in Florida, said there have been no such complaints at any of the company’s locations. The Emergency Management Division also has no reports of people receiving results without ever being tested, Mahones said.
Bernstein says she is still glad she hung up the phone when contact tracers called her.
“I’m lucky I had been taught to never give my Social Security number over the phone,” Bernstein said. “I just feel like so many are abusing this sensitive situation for their own gain. It’s not right.”