Authorities are ramping up efforts to prevent fraudsters from exploiting the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, taking pre-emptive steps against an expected surge in scam calls and phishing emails preying on older people.

Earlier this month, the Consumer Affairs Agency (CAA) set up a hotline catering exclusively to inquiries about novel coronavirus vaccine scams. The Metropolitan Police Department, too, is handing out flyers warning against suspicious callers who impersonate public servants and try to con older people into paying for what is claimed to be early access to vaccinations.

The vaccine rollout began last week, with the inoculation of front-line medical workers, but vaccine-linked scams had already emerged in January, when the approach of the vaccine program quickly captured national attention, according to a CAA official who declined to be named.

At the moment, vaccine-related fraud is still in its infancy in Japan, with the CAA so far having received just 10 or so inquiries complaining of such schemes. But the fact that the agency has acted so swiftly to establish the hotline, while reports of fraudsters banking on the vaccine program remain relatively scarce, signals the unusual level of vigilance around what is shaping up to be a monumental national project.

“We’ve decided to act pre-emptively because the whole vaccine program takes place nationwide and involves so many people,” the CAA official said, adding that the agency expects a spike in the number of scams targeting older people once their inoculations kick off.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced that the government is looking to commence vaccinations for older people on April 12.

The purpose of the hotline, then, is first and foremost to act as a deterrent against attempts to swindle those next in line for the vaccination, the official said.

According to the National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan, scams capitalizing on the vaccine rollout could come via phone calls or text messages.

In one example cited by the center, a self-described public health official called an older woman and started rapidly firing instructions at her, telling her to transfer ¥100,000 to a bank account so she can be prioritized for inoculation. The caller assured her she would be reimbursed later, but when her daughter rang back to confirm the caller’s identity, the line went dead.

An older man with a wheeled walker checks a smartphone while waiting at a novel coronavirus vaccination center in Cologne, Germany, on Feb. 8. | AFP-JIJI
An older man with a wheeled walker checks a smartphone while waiting at a novel coronavirus vaccination center in Cologne, Germany, on Feb. 8. | AFP-JIJI

In another case, a suspicious text message bearing the name of a Cabinet minister arrived on the phone of a man in his 30s, inviting him to click a link with the promise that he would get preferential treatment in the vaccination program.

Officials say any phone calls or emails encouraging one to transfer money for supposed vaccine perks are all but guaranteed to be fraudulent.

“Since the vaccine program this time around is funded entirely by the central government, there is no way that municipal officials would ever go around asking for payment in exchange for shots,” administrative reform minister Taro Kono, who is doubling as Japan's vaccine rollout czar, told a news conference last month.

Likewise, since each municipality already has a database of residents eligible for inoculation, officials would never use the vaccination as an excuse to call up someone and inquire about their personal information, he said.

Japan is far from alone in stepping up measures against vaccine scammers.

The International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) issued a statement in December warning 194 member countries across the world to “prepare for organized crime networks targeting COVID-19 vaccines, both physically and online.”

“Criminal networks will also be targeting unsuspecting members of the public via fake websites and false cures, which could pose a significant risk to their health, even their lives,” Jurgen Stock, Interpol secretary-general, said in the statement.

“It is essential that law enforcement is as prepared as possible for what will be an onslaught of all types of criminal activity linked to the COVID-19 vaccine.”

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