David C. Henley: New scams emerge with spread of Omicron variant

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 Americans are observing a terrible anniversary this month. It was virtually two years ago when the first confirmed case of the COVID-19 virus was discovered in the United States.
Initially discovered in Wuhan, China, on Dec. 31, 2019, the virus, which would soon spark a world-wide pandemic, felled a man in Washington state who had just returned from Wuhan, on Jan, 21, 2020. The virus rapidly spread throughout the U.S. and the world, and as of today, more than 68 million cases and 855,000 deaths have been reported in the U.S. Worldwide, an estimated 335 million have contracted COVID-19 and 5.5 million have died.
Two months following the arrival of the first U.S. COVID-19 case, I wrote the first of several columns about the virus that have appeared in this newspaper over the past two years, describing the spread of the disease in Nevada and paying particular attention to the growth of scams and frauds affecting those who tested positive for COVID-19. My first column was headlined “Scams Proliferate as Virus Spreads Across the U.S.,” and I wrote about “the online peddling of fake COVID-19 test kits, pills, vaccines, food supplements and a wide variety of other counterfeit medical treatments that scammers and hucksters maintain will prevent or cure the deadly virus.
Today, these ruses continue unabated. But the scammers have altered their pitches to the unsuspecting, taking advantage of the fears surrounding the emergence of the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 and the public’s demand for rapid and accurate testing kits for home use.
One of the most factual sources of information on the scams comes from Tim Johnston, who heads the Sparks-headquartered office of the Northern Nevada Better Business Bureau. In an interview with Johnston last Friday, he told me that the fraudsters closely follow the headlines by adapting new messages and tactics they send via the U.S. mail, emails, texts, robocalls and the social media. These messages often offer fraudulent rapid tests for home use, and they also advertise bogus “pop-up” testing clinics and impersonate health care workers who approach people waiting in long lines at legitimate sites. In both cases, the crooks offer quick access to fake or unapproved tests and collect personal, financial and medical information from those they are pretending to assist in order to cheat them by the use of identity theft or health insurance scams. A January BBB “Scam Alert” spotlights how the scammers use fake clinic or medical supply websites to collect personal information or credit card numbers in the guise of offering hard-to-find test kits.
The selling of teas, oils, colloidol silver and intravenous vitamin-C therapies are among treatments hawked on the phony websites and on social media as defenses against the pandemic. In late December, federal officials shut down a New Jersey organization and ordered it to recall “nano silver” products it advertised and sold as a COVID-19 treatment. Email phishing and related scams have been a “big part of the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center which is investigating a pandemic-fueled Internet crime spree,” Johnston said. Cybercrooks also have registered tens of thousands of COVID-related spoof web domains, and if you contact one of these “malicious sites,” you begin receiving phishing emails from scammers seeking to get personal information from you directly or by malware that “digs into your files on your computer, looking for passwords and other private data for purposes of identity theft,” cautions the BBB.
As well, be on the lookout for calls, texts or emails purportedly from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and other government agencies that instruct you to click a link, pay a fee or “confirm” personal data like your Social Security number to secure federal pandemic aid. The IRS, which is distributing the payments, says it has received a record number of reports about these scams. As the pandemic continues and the Omicron variant’s growth has become a major concern to health officials, warnings also are being sounded about the selling of unapproved antibody tests, which can give inaccurate results. And those selling the tests may also be collecting your personal and private information such as Social Security number and date of birth in order to steal your health insurance or Medicare information that can be used in future schemes.
Although there appears to be a leveling off of COVID-19 and Omicron variant cases and the government has put in place a nationwide program in which all Americans may request free testing kits to be sent us via the mail, scientists are cautioning that “Omicron’s whirlwind advance practically ensures it won’t be the last version of the coronavirus to worry the world,” according to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times. “Experts don’t know what the next variants will look like or how they may shape the pandemic, but they say there’s no guarantee the sequels of Omicron will cause milder illness or that existing vaccines will work against them. They urge wider vaccinations now, while today’s vaccinations still work,” added the Times.
“The faster Omicron spreads, the more opportunities there are for mutation, potentially leading to more variants,” said Leonardo Martinez, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Boston University, in a quote carried in the Times article,
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.


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