A history of a scams and fraud in the Miami-Dade County area is haunting Covid-19 contact tracing efforts, according to local officials.
“Please do not hang up on contact tracers from the health department,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said in a news conference Wednesday. “We’re getting indications that a lot of people are not answering the questions, they’re not responding to the contact tracers.”
“The biggest fear is mistrust,” Yesenia Villalta, the administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade County said. “They feel that it could be a scam, so that’s the biggest factor that we are seeing in terms of not participating in the contact tracing process.”
Contact tracing is seen as a crucial pillar in the fight against Covid-19, one that goes hand in hand with testing. It involves reaching out to people who had contact with someone who has been recently diagnosed with Covid-19 so the contact can get tested, quarantine themselves and prevent further spread.
But residents of Miami-Dade are skeptical about calls from unfamiliar parties — and not without good reason. The area has been home to several identity theft rings, phishing scams and fraudsters over the years, according to past CNN reporting.
In 2019, Florida ranked second nationwide for the number of fraud reports per capita, with nearly 178,000 total reports of fraud and $89.6 million in total losses, according to a report from the Federal Trade Commission. The Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach metropolitan area ranked third nationwide. Identity theft and imposter scams were the two most common types of fraud reported in the state, per the report.
As a result, fears of being scammed have become yet another obstacle for contact tracers.
“More than 50% of people who are contacted who tested positive refuse to speak with the contact tracers, and this is one of the most serious aspects of the contact tracing dilemma,” Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious disease specialist at of Florida International University told CNN affiliate WPLG. “And it’s clear that our population hasn’t grasped how vital that is.”
Marty underlined the importance of contact tracing, saying, “You cannot go any further on the openings until we have this business of testing and contact tracing completely in hand.”
Real contact tracers will never ask for personal banking or social security information, Villalta of the Florida health department said Wednesday. They will ask for name and date of birth to confirm they’re speaking to the right person, she said, and for close contacts. But contact tracers won’t divulge information about who has been infected.
To help contact tracing efforts, local officials have also asked residents to download an app that notifies users when they’re near someone who has self-reported that they tested positive for the virus. The app does not disclose the person’s identity, but officials are having to stress that the app will not compromise a user’s privacy.
“Let me stress that this app requires no personal information, no GPS or location information is tracked,” Gimenez said. “The information is encrypted, so there’s absolutely no reason to fear that the government is tracking your every move. It’s really about protecting you.”
To keep people safe, the FTC has outlined five things to know should you receive a contact tracing call, including:
• Legitimate contact tracers won’t ask for money
• They don’t require your bank account or credit card number
• They won’t ask for your Social Security number
• They won’t ask about your immigration status
Additionally, contact tracers in Miami-Dade will reach out prior to calling, the mayor said, letting the contact know they’ll be hearing from the department of health.
“Please answer the call,” he said. “And when you do answer, please answer the questions.”