An illustration of a vaccine vial and needle over a $100 bill.

COVID-19 vaccines are becoming more widely available but not fast enough to deter scammers from preying on people anxious to get their shots.

The Key Takeaways

You don’t need to pay to get a COVID-19 vaccine appointment. Anyone who asks for a payment to put you on a list, make an appointment for you, or reserve a spot in line is a scammer, says Colleen Tressler, senior project manager in the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer business and education office. Check with your state or local health department or ask your doctor or pharmacist how to get the COVID-19 vaccine where you live.

Getting a COVID-19 vaccine is always free. The vaccines are free whether or not you have health insurance, although your provider may charge your insurer an administration fee for giving the shot. If you have private insurance or Medicare, you will not owe a deductible, copayment, or coinsurance.

The only way you might incur a bill is if you get a vaccine as part of a doctor’s appointment. For example, you might owe a copay or coinsurance if you see your doctor for another reason—say, for a checkup or to treat an injury—and get a vaccine as part of the appointment.

While primary care doctors haven’t yet had wide access to vaccine supply, that is expected to change as part of the Biden administration’s plans to boost vaccine availability from trusted sources, especially in rural areas and communities of color.

You can’t buy a COVID-19 vaccine. Ignore ads for the vaccine that come via email and pop up online on Facebook or Twitter, and in Google search. The vaccine is available only at federal- and state-approved locations. If you already purchased one and used a credit card, you can dispute it with the credit card issuer. If you use a payment app such as Venmo or Zelle, or a debit card, there are no formal protections, so you’re unlikely to get your money back.

Never respond to requests for your personal financial information. No one from a vaccine distribution site, healthcare provider’s office, pharmacy, a private insurance company, or Medicare will call, text, or email you asking for your Social Security, credit card or bank account number in order to get the vaccine. 

The Background

A host of federal agencies and state regulators are stepping up warnings about scams tied to the vaccines. The schemes include fraudsters offering early access to shots on fake registration websites and even delivery of vaccines via mail, for a price. They may come to you via social media posts, emails, text messages, online ads, and robocalls.

More on COVID-19

“There’s a lot of confusion out there about vaccines,” says Tressler at the FTC consumer business and education office. That’s in part because the news on vaccines changes almost daily, and because who is eligible for a shot varies by state and even by the county where you live. “The bottom line is that you should never pay to get access to the vaccine and you can’t buy it anywhere,” she says.

Regulators are trying to crack down on alleged fraudsters. In February, three Baltimore-area men were charged with creating a website and domain name similar to vaccine maker Moderna’s and trying to sell vaccines for $30 per dose. The arrests were a joint effort by the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the Baltimore County Police Department.

In another case, in early March, the Department of Justice alleges that a man in Washington state posing as a biotech expert used social media posts to peddle an injectable COVID-19 vaccine that he said he created and offered to inject in buyers for $400 to $1,000 per shot. He was arrested in Iowa, where he had traveled, allegedly to “vaccinate” an undercover FDA agent.

Vaccine scams are just the latest iteration of fraudulent activity tied to the pandemic. Early COVID-19 scams focused on bogus virus treatments and test kits, and price gouging on hard-to-get items such as cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.

There has also been a dramatic increase in identity theft since the pandemic started. In 2020, 1.4 million reports of ID theft were filed, more than double the number of 2019, according to the FTC. A big chunk of those were connected to unemployment claims fraud using stolen personal information. In 2020 there were 394,000 reports of fraud involving unemployment claims and other government benefits, such as COVID-19 stimulus payments, compared with 12,900 in 2019.

Vaccine scams are an especially insidious version of COVID-19 fraud. In addition to losing your money or personal information, you might lose time in getting the vaccine if you pay someone you think is legit to get you an appointment and it never happens, Tressler says.

Unfortunately, vaccine fraud isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon. Though vaccination rates are picking up, and hesitancy about getting the vaccine is diminishing, as of March 8 only 24 percent of U.S. adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And investigations into fraud take a long time, so crooks have a lot of runway, Tressler says, adding that the best way to prevent becoming a victim is to educate yourself about the kinds of scams you might see.