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COVID-19 scam promises big money to participate in clinical trials

Pfizer’s clinical trial success could make this scheme even more dangerous

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Since April, a handful of pharmaceutical companies have been developing vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus (COVID-19) and testing them in clinical trials.

These clinical trials have been in the news for months. Monday’s report from Pfizer that its vaccine candidate achieved a more than 90 percent efficacy rate elevated clinical trials to the lead story. That could make a new COVID-19 scam even more dangerous.

For weeks, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) has been tracking a scam in which people receive a text message promising $1,000 or more if they’ll participate in a clinical trial. The trial is supposedly one that is testing either a vaccine or treatment for the virus.

One version of the message reads: “Local Covid19 Study: Compensation up to $1,220! Qualify Here: [link removed] stop2stop,” and contains a link. The message instructs the recipient to click to determine whether they are eligible.

“No matter how curious you are – or how much you could use an extra $1,200 – don’t click,” the BBB advises. "It’s a scam!”

Unleashes malware

The link doesn’t lead to a potential $1,200 but instead downloads malware onto your device. Once downloaded, the virus can give scammers access to your usernames, passwords, and other personal information stored on your device.

In another version of the scam, the link actually takes potential victims to a webpage that looks like a real clinical trial. But the questions you’ll be asked extend far beyond what a legitimate clinical trial would ask. Some targets have reported being asked for Social Security and bank account numbers.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is also tracking this scam. Jim Kreidler, consumer education specialist at the FTC, recently warned that some of these scams are highly sophisticated and hoping to catch consumers off guard.

“They might promise you a doctor’s care and more than $1000 in payment...but as soon as they try to charge you for access, or ask for your Social Security, bank account, or credit card number, your Spidey sense should start tingling, because, unfortunately, some of these so-called ‘research studies’ are fake,” Kreidler wrote in a consumer information bulletin.

How to avoid the scam

The best way to avoid these scams is to simply ignore the message. While drug developers sometimes advertise for clinical trial participants, they don’t do it with random text messages. 

One big tipoff that the offer is a scam is if the “clinical trial” expects you to pay to be involved. It doesn’t work that way.

If you’re curious, go to ClinicalTrials.gov, a site maintained by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Library of Medicine (NLM). You can see what trials are actually being conducted and who’s running them. 

If the text message does not mention a government agency, university, or hospital, it’s additional evidence that you’re dealing with a scam.

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