Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Friday, April 24, 2020

COVID scam roundup

As the weather turns warmer and the walls of our houses and apartments slowly close in, a lot of people are feeling pretty ripped off. Seniors are getting shafted out of the proms and graduations they've looked forward to for four years, teachers are losing out on the goodbye hugs as they send their kids off, kids can't go out and play with their friends. We are all getting cheated like nobody's business.
Some of us more literally than others.
In times of human tragedy, you can count on a lot of things. You can count on the helpers. On seeing the best in people. On seeing the last person you'd expect step up in a big way.

And you can count on scammers circling like jackals, falling over themselves to make a buck off of fear and misery and suffering. Then there are the normal, garden-variety scams that folks are running across just by virtue of being at home and online more. So I figure it's probably a good time for a good old scam roundup.

Phone phonies
There are a whole mess of scams going around that start with your answering your phone. I've gotten quite a few calls from some organization trying to sell me some bogus supplemental insurance. You might get calls claiming to come from a doctor, or a nonprofit that wants to give you a free coronavirus test kit, or a hospital demanding payment for a loved one whom they claim is close to death.
The AARP gives a bunch of guidelines for avoiding getting taken in by these scams. They say not to even answer the phone if you don't recognize the number on caller ID. If you do answer, and a robot starts talking, try to remember if you've ever given written permission for this company to contact you via robo-dialer. If you haven't, hang up - unsolicited robocalls are illegal.
If a charity calls, it's best not to donate over the phone. Ask them to send you materials in the mail - scammers won't bother - or how to donate online. 
No legitimate organization will ever ask for your full social security number over the phone, and it's best never to give any personal information to a stranger who calls your house. 
If you get a call that rings once and then hangs up, don't call it back. That may be a ploy to get you to call a hotline that charges you a per-minute fee. Beware of phone calls in which you receive a strange-sounding voicemail that doesn't include any discernible words - that's another trick to get you to call a toll number; the scammers come up with audio clips designed to peak a person's interest so they'll be more likely to call back.

According to the BBB, scammers have been texting folks telling them they have to take a mandatory COVID-19 test online, but it's just another scam to get a bunch of your personal information. I mean, "online COVID test" should probably have been your first clue? Anyway, BBB says not to click on the link they send you and not to text them back.

Social Security
The Motley Fool reports that lots of folks are getting official looking mail that seems to have come from Social Security. The letter says that your benefits are going to be suspended due to COVID unless you call a certain phone number. Once you call the number, they tell you that you have to pay to be reinstated, and it's all a ploy to get your personal information and credit card number. 
If you get a letter that seems to come from Social Security, it might be wise to find your nearest Social Security office's phone number online, rather than call the phone number listed on the letter. 

This isn't directly COVID-related, but now that a whole lot of us have nothing better to do than sit at home playing around on social media, many of us have grown careless with personal information. 
A bunch of those surveys that go around asking for your favorite vegetable, your first job, your stripper name (which might consist of the name of, for instance, your first pet, another common password question) - those were designed to get you to reveal your password questions for various websites. That makes it a whole lot easier to hack into your accounts and steal from you.
Another quiz scam - Facebook apps. Couple years ago, Cambridge Analytica got a whole bunch of Facebook users' personal data by getting them to opt in to a Facebook quiz app without reading the end user licence agreement. You'd think after that happened Facebook would have taken steps to prevent that sort of thing, but now a security firm is saying that Ukrainian hackers used the same method to get user data very recently. 
You can make yourself safer by keeping your account set to friends-only, never taking quizzes that never require you to enable an app or accept an end user license agreement, and avoiding quizzes that include personal information. 

Phishing is the practice of sending emails that appear to come from a legitimate business, but which then trick you into going to a phony website and entering personal information. In an especially cruel twist, scammers have been sending phishing emails that appear to be job offers, offers of financial help, and insurance offers. People get a job offer email from someone posing as LinkedIn, they click a link in the email, try to log in to LinkedIn, and then the scammers have full control of the victim's LinkedIn account as well as any other account that uses that password.  
If you get an email that seems to come from LinkedIn or another job search website, don't click the link in the email. Instead, open a new browser tab, and type the web address in the search bar. This allows you to be certain you're going to the correct website; if you do in fact have a message waiting, there will be a notification icon. 

Door to door
The Red Cross is tracking reports in which scammers, posing as Red Cross workers, show up at people's door claiming to be selling or giving away home COVID19 test kits. These scammers are after your money, your personal information, and may even want to rob your house. The Red Cross isn't selling test kits door-to-door, and I'm going to go out on a limb and say that no other legitimate organization is either. 
You might run across other, non-COVID door-to-door scams as well, just by virtue of being home during the day. For instance, there are scammers who dress in what looks like an energy or home security company's uniform and show up at your door with a clipboard, making it sound as if they need you to sign some routine paperwork, or claiming they can lower the price you're paying for energy. Sometimes they claim your service is about to be shut off. What you'd really be doing if you signed on the dotted line is agreeing to pay a recurring or one-time fee for essentially nothing. These scammers are like virtual quick change artists - they're really, really good at convincing you they're legit. Here's what you can do:

  • If someone claims you have to take immediate action, you can go and find your last bill from the company that provides the service in question. Use the 800 number on that bill to check whether the visitor is legitimate.
  • If you do get tricked into signing up for a service they're selling, don't worry and don't be embarrassed. These folks are very, very good at what they do. The good news is that the Federal Trade Commission gives consumers a 3-day "Cooling Off" period for sales made at your home. You just need to fill out the cancellation form that came with your paperwork (or write a cancellation letter if no cancellation form is available) and send it by certified mail within 3 days of your signing up. If problems arise, you can file a claim with the FTC, who will get it straightened out. 
When it comes to door-to-door salespeople, I think it's probably safe to assume that no legitimate business is sending their employees door to door during the shutdown  

That's not nearly all the scams that I dug up, sadly, but those seem to be the biggest ones. Just, remember to keep your eyes open and your minds skeptical, because people are horrible and the world is depressing.
But now, some good news.
Meet my weekly watch-n-weep. I am way too jaded and
cynical for these shenanigans. And yet. 

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Fighting for the death

In the past couple of days there have been protesters spread across the front pages of newspapers across the country. If you'd have asked me to guess what people would be willing to break isolation to protest over, I would not have guessed that they'd be demanding that more people be allowed to die of SARS-CoV-2, but that's apparently what the kids are into these days. But then, there are a whole lot of well-funded organizations convincing them that it's a grave injustice that we should sit at home for a couple of months in the hopes of saving a few hundred thousand lives. Organizations tied to Betsy DeVos, the Koch brothers, Adolph Coors, who'd like to have their workforce back and aren't worried if a few of them have to die for the cause.
And I want to talk about some of the points that some of the protesters and their online supporters have been making, because some of them actually seem to have merit when you look at them out of context, and it's actually not impossible to imagine being so convinced by aspects of the small picture that the big picture gets out of focus.
I keep encountering people online who insist that we're all just being crazy and anxious and over-the-top. We're so scared of getting sick that we've abandoned all reason. Now that most places aren't seeing the nightmare scenarios that were predicted early on, this is an especially tempting view. Even though the nightmare scenarios were projections of what would happen if we didn't take aggressive containment measures, anti-climaxes are anti-climactic. Now it's true, the public does panic unnecessarily all the time, over really foolish stuff. Politicians too. Remember how everybody freaked out about those 4 Ebola cases in 2014 and everybody was losing their minds and demanding the president close the borders? Heck, we've done that over every major Ebola outbreak. Remember when everyone wanted to shut the country down over SARS? MERS?
But do you remember who was remaining calm and telling Americans "there's no reason to worry, we got this"? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Institutes of Health. Doctors. Scientists. Epidemiologists. They worked efficiently and with great urgency with the international scientific community to contain those illnesses, and to get treatment to those who needed it. They told us we didn't need to worry and they were right. The researchers who have been working to protect Americans from infectious diseases are world-class. They've got a thousand years of historical data to draw from, some of the most advanced technology on the planet, and they know a lot better than Karen on Facebook how diseases work. If every infectious disease expert on the planet is saying "this is the one we need to worry about," then this is the one we need to worry about.
There is no reason, y'all, that all the infectious disease specialists would band together to sell you a big old lie. In fact, every one of them would kill to be the one that discovered the silver bullet that ended the international nightmare. Setting aside saving lives and all that nonsense, the researcher who figured out a way to contain or cure the disease without shutting down the economy would have a Nobel prize, a book deal, and every cent of research funding they wanted for the rest of their lives. They'd be the greatest hero on the planet. Not a one of them wants to have to tell you to stay at home if you want all your loved ones to stay alive.  

Now, I've heard a number of people suggest that what we need to do is reopen the economy but leave all the old people at home while everybody else develops herd immunity. Because they heard the expression "herd immunity" once and decided to start using it without actually understanding how it works. Here's the problem with that plan.
We're sitting at about 30K new cases of COVID-19 per day, with social distancing. Of those 30K, 6,000, or 20% will be admitted to the hospital (not counting people who are treated in the ER and sent home). A significant number of those 6,000 people will die without prompt medical attention. Unfortunately, those patients don't go home after a day. Many will remain weeks, some a month or more.
The good news is that, except for in hot zones like New York, our hospitals, for the most part, have the capacity to handle this. For now, most have the beds and the staff to get prompt and effective treatment to everybody. Doctors and nurses in some areas are working past the point of exhaustion, which, of course, makes deadly mistakes more likely. Hospitals across the country still lack adequate masks and gowns, which means that doctors and nurses are getting sicker at a much higher rate than necessary, and that's causing some staffing issues that are for the most part manageable. So far. Because of social distancing.
So what happens if we stop social distancing tomorrow?   
There will be a spike in new cases. I don't know how big - you'd have to ask an epidemiologist - but I do know that if we're adding tens of thousands of cases a day despite half the country being in underground bunkers, the spike's gonna be somewhere between massive and staggering.
Hospitals don't have enough beds to accommodate a massive spike. Hospitals don't have the staff to accommodate a massive spike. And when hospitals are short-staffed, people die. People with COVID-19 who could have been saved would die because doctors didn't get to them in time. People with conditions completely unrelated to COVID-19 would die because doctors couldn't get to them in time.
The ICU fills up with COVID-19 patients, leaving no room for people with other life-threatening emergencies. Ambulances can't keep up with the demand and people with COVID-19 and without will suffer or die because there aren't enough EMTs in the city to respond to every emergency in a timely fashion.
But it gets worse. If we reopened the economy tomorrow, hospitals would not have enough PPE to keep themselves safe. Medical professionals would continue to get sick at much higher rates than the rest of us. 20% of doctors, 20% of nurses, 20% of respiratory therapists, will end up being hospitalized and unable to work, leaving hospitals even more short-staffed, which leaves more COVID and non-COVID patients dead. 

I've heard a few people make the argument that sure, social distancing might be necessary in big places like New York, but in small towns, it won't spread like that. Well, in fact, COVID-19 is barreling its way toward rural America and experts don't think rural America is ready. See, the smaller the town, the smaller and less well-equipped the hospital.
There would be other dire consequences to reopening the economy too soon. COVID-19 is already ravaging nursing homes. How much worse will it be when every staff member's kids are back in school/at daycare? How are businesses going to thrive if the open back up only to have all their employees get sick at the same time? Who is going to maintain order if all the cops get sick at the same time? This isn't just a normal bug - this is every employee who gets sick going on mandatory quarantine for two weeks, assuming they don't get hospitalized, assuming they don't end up on disability because the disease ripped up their organs.
Look, y'all, this shut down sucks. It sucks so much. I am bored and I can't stop eating and I'm getting really antsy about not having a job and I miss my family and I legit cannot breathe through that stupid mask. But Fauci’s gone from estimating death rates in the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands. The peaks we were so worried about have turned to gentle slopes. Look, for instance, at Ohio, which took some of the earliest and the strictest social distancing measures in the country. The yellow shows what researchers were predicting with no intervention at all. The blue shows what Ohioans have accomplished by just staying home and being safe. 
“Our latest projection is 1,600 cases per day — still a lot of cases per day, still a load on our hospitals, but this is the effect you have done. In Ohio we took our prediction and you have basically done this… you have squashed this and you have stretched it. Honestly, this is you. This is what you have done. This is how you have saved lives.” Dr. Amy Acton, Ohio Department of Health Director

Ohio plans to start very gradually reopening businesses come May 1st, and I'm cautiously optimistic about the prospect. The health director and governor have been very clear that we won't return to business as usual for a long, long time, but hope that cautiously reopening some non-essential businesses will offset the financial hardship for struggling families.   
I will confess that I am more concerned about the economy than I am about my getting sick. I know that if I do get sick, even with my compromised immune system, my odds of surviving are still really good. I am unemployed and way, way more worried about my personal finances than I am about my slim chances of catching the plague. Yes, I get that it is vitally important to avoid another great depression. But we can not, must not grease the wheels of capitalism with the blood of our countrymen. We are all in this together.
So does the economy stay closed forever until we get a vaccine? I don't see how that's possible. Several medical models have indicated that we'll need rolling shutdowns from now until 2022 - that's when we expect to have a vaccine. I don't know enough to have an opinion on that, but I do know that, at the very least, Americans have a moral obligation to stay at home until every hospital has enough personal protective equipment to keep their staff alive. We cannot applaud doctors and nurses as heroes and then put their lives at risk by behaving irresponsibly. There are a lot of people talking about their rights to get their hair cut or eat at Applebees, but don't thinking about the fact that hospital employees have the right to live.  I love you all. Stay safe, and stay home!

Thursday, April 16, 2020


Good information about catching COVID-19 from contaminated surfaces seems hard to find. Some news reports say that the virus remains on surfaces for a few days at most, while some seem to say it can remain for a couple of weeks. Some sources say to wear gloves everywhere you go, and some say wearing gloves is worse than touching things with bare hands.
There are a few reasons we see so much conflicting information. For one, COVID-19 is a brand new virus, and researchers’ understanding of it is improving every day. For another, news outlets tend to be really bad at vetting sources for their science reporting, such that they’ll give the same weight to a study with a sample size of 4 conducted by the Clown College of Cooterville as they do to a huge study by the CDC.
Luckily, my recent liberation from the world of the gainfully employed gives me plenty of time to dig through the science behind the headlines and separate the concrete from the riffraff. If you don’t have time to read this whole story, here’s a summary: you most probably can’t get COVID-19 from food. You can get it from surfaces, but you’re far more likely to get it by failing to follow social distancing guidelines. COVID-19 remains on surfaces for 1-5 days depending on the surface, but statistically, you aren’t nearly as likely to get COVID from your groceries, say, as you are to get it from your fellow grocery shoppers. Note that all this is true as of the middle of April 2020, but our understanding grows every day.     
*Exceptions include stainless steel, on which the virus remains active for 48 hours, and copper, on which the virus remains active for only 4 hours.

But hang on. There was definitely a news story about the CDC finding COVID-19 virus on a cruise ship 2 weeks after the last passengers were off, wasn’t there? Yes, CNBC did run a story with the headline, “CDC says coronavirus survived in Princess cruise ship cabins for up to 17 days after passengers left.” But the word “survived” is misleading here. What the CDC found was viral RNA, evidence that the disease had been there, but they didn’t find any live, infectious virus. 
Now let’s talk about what all that means for groceries and deliveries. The CDC, the WHO, the NIH, and infectious disease specialists everywhere say that the risk of getting COVID-19 from your Cap’n Crunch is minimal, and you should worry way more about person-to-person spread. They’re right, of course. All the experts say to get your groceries delivered when you can, and when you can’t, treat the grocery store like a game of Operation. Where the pieces move. And you don’t know whether you’ve successfully removed the funny bone for two weeks. They say you should touch only the stuff you plan to buy (that includes your face), stand as far back from the cashiers as you can, and use touchless payment methods if you’re able. And of course, wash your hands 100 times a day while singing the entire Beatles back catalogue. 
They’re right, of course. Especially since, as far as they know so far, somebody’s got to cough or sneeze right on your summer sausage to leave COVID cooties on it. But I personally do prefer to clean everything that comes into my house. If you do too, here’s the dirt. You don’t need to bust out the bleach or the flamethrower to get rid of Miss ‘Rona, you don’t even need to break into your precious supply of anti-bacterial wipes. Any old soap will do. Soap contains compounds called amphiphiles that weasel their way in between the lipids in the virus membrane, which causes the membrane to break up, which turns the virus into a harmless jumble of molecules. Wipe items down with a soapy rag then a clean wet rag, and they’re good to go. You should do the same with the counter once you’ve got all the groceries put away.
Experts say produce can just be washed like normal, no soap needed. Remember, the plague wants to feast on you, not your food. Stuff in cardboard can just be dumped straight into reusable storage containers – or just left alone for a day. Clean up your fridge handles and cupboard knobs just to be safe and then, you guessed it, wash your hands. 
In my house, when we get food delivered, we do transfer it to our own plates, use our own silverware, and wash our hands after we’ve disposed of all the bags and packaging that came with our food. I give packages and mail a quick spritz with Lysol before I touch them, which the experts would probably tell me is over-the-top, but I certainly don’t have anything better to do. 
So the long and the short of it is that science says stay home. When you can’t stay home, stay away from everyone. When you get home, you can give your wares a wipe-down, but you’ll probably be fine if you don’t.

  • “Coronavirus Resource Center” Harvard Health Publishing 04/16/2020
  • “How COVID-19 Spreads” 04/12/2020
  • Desai, Angel N. MD, MPH1; Aronoff, David M. MD. “Food Safety and COVID-19” Journal of the American Medical Association 04/09/2020
  • Moriarty, Leah. “Public Health Responses to COVID-19 Outbreaks on Cruise Ships — Worldwide, February–March 2020” Centers for Disease Control Website 03/27/2020
  • Putterman, Samantha. “There’s no evidence COVID-19 can survive on surfaces up to 17 days.” 03/26/2020 
  • Thordarson, Pall. “The science of soap – here’s how it kills the coronavirus” 03/12/2020
  • van Doremalen, Neeltje, Ph.D., et al. “Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1” New England Journal of Medicine. 04/16/2020
  • WHO team “Q & A on Coronaviruses (COVID-19)” World Health Organization website 04/08/2020

Tuesday, April 14, 2020


If you want to minimize your COVID-19 risk, the best way to buy groceries is online. Instacart allows you to buy groceries from a variety of nearby stores and have them delivered to your home. All you need are a credit card and an internet connected device.
The cost of delivery varies based on how high demand is when you order and how soon you want your groceries. You’ll generally pay about $5.99 per delivery plus tips, but the company often offers deals and discounts. If you plan to use Instacart regularly, it may be worthwhile to invest in their Instacart Express service, which offers unlimited deliveries for a yearly fee. 
Instacart doesn’t deliver from all stores in your area. Some larger chains, like Walmart, offer their own delivery services. 
These steps assume you are shopping on a laptop or desktop computer. If you’re shopping on a tablet (such as an iPad) or phone, the process is similar, but the position of the fields and buttons on the screen will be different.

  1. Open a Web browser, and type in the Search bar. The Instacart main page appears.
  2. Type your zip code in the Address or zip code field and click Continue. If Instacart service is available in your area, an Available in [your area] message appears, and you are prompted to create an account.
    • If Instacart isn’t available in your area yet, a message appears stating We aren’t in [your area] yet. 
  3. In the Email field, type your email address, and then click Sign up with email. An account is created and a Select Store for Delivery page appears.
  4. Click a store name. The page for that store appears.
  5. Find the items you need by typing their names into the Search bar and then pressing Enter.
  6. When you find an item you need, click on it, and then click Add to Cart to add it to your virtual shopping cart.
  7. When you’re finished adding items, look for the Cart button near the upper right of the screen and click it. The contents of your cart appear.
    • If you want to, you can change the quantity of an item by typing a new number in the field next to the price.
    • If you want to remove the item from your cart, click the trash can icon below the product name.
  8. Click Go to checkout. A checkout screen appears.
  9. In the Add delivery address section, enter the information requested. 
  10. In the Choose delivery time section, select a time and date for your delivery.
  11. In the Delivery instructions section, enter any special instructions, like “Please leave groceries on doorstep,” or “Please use side door.”
  12. In the Mobile number section field, enter your mobile phone number. Your delivery person will text you at this number if they have questions about your order. If you don’t have a mobile phone, or would prefer not to communicate via text, use your landline number.
  13. In the Contact Name section, enter your first and last name. 
  14. In the Payment section, enter your credit card number.
  15. If you want to add a tip, click the Add tip button on the upper right side of the screen. Note: A large portion of Instacart employees’ income comes from tips.
  16. If the store doesn’t have one or more of your selected items on the day of your delivery, your Instacart shopper will call or text you and ask if you want to substitute something else.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Achtung baby

The news about COVID is encouraging - projected deaths are now much lower than they were initially, social distancing is working. Still, people are dying, and a whole lot more people will be dead before this is over. The whole world is upside down and the fact that we can't leave our houses serves as a constant reminder of how friggin terrifying everything is.
Public health officials keep reminding us of the stuff we can do to avoid getting sick - hand washing and staying home and all that. But they don't talk about one of the most important methods for fortifying the immune system: managing stress.
I know that the idea of trying to manage stress while trapped in your house with a superflu in the air and unemployment looming and screaming demon children tearing your house apart sounds absurd. But the fact is that the stress we're all under is killing us - some of us literally. Stress is the reason we're exhausted even though we never leave the house and it's the reason we can't stop shoving Fritos in our faces. Stress is why my fibromyalgia's flaring and it's likely why your asthma or acid reflux or IBS is acting up. And most importantly, stress is kryptonite for our immune systems. But at least there are some things we can do about it. 
Now, before I go on, I want to make it clear what I'm not saying. I'm not minimizing this crisis or telling you that your fear isn't valid. I'm not telling you to stop worrying and learn to love the plague. This post is about finding moments of calm in the terrifying chaos of this crisis, about caring for our bodies by tending to our minds. It's about taking what control we can of our health and giving our immune systems a fighting chance.

So, we've all heard about mindfulness meditation a hundred times, and adult coloring, and journaling and bubble baths. But here are some science-based stress reduction methods you might not have heard of. No one of these are going to work for everybody, but I hope I'll have included enough that there's something for everyone. 

  • Commune with nature:
    Research shows that just 20 minutes out among the trees, even if you're just sitting on a park bench the whole time, can significantly lower your levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol does all kinds of nasty stuff to your body, including chowing down on your white blood cells.
    Bonus, sunlight boosts your levels of vitamin D, which is necessary for immune function.
  • Consider fostering a pet:
    Okay, if your life is already a steaming pile of chaos, this is a terrible idea and you should move along. However, shelters are badly in need to folks to shelter their critters (so that they can have as few humans working at the adoption center as possible). And as it turns out, petting a cat or dog can actually lower depression, anxiety, and blood pressure. 
  • Play Tetris, of all things. The game distracts the part of your brain that deals in "narrative conceptual thinking," essentially cutting off your ability to fixate on whether you remembered to Lysol the doorknobs or how much time you let the kids play on the iPad today. I suspect this isn't limited to Tetris. I've got this game called Merge Dragons on my phone that accomplishes what years of trying to force myself to meditate couldn't. I Love Hue is a good one for people who don't especially like video games. Here's a list of mobile games that other folks have found useful in managing stress.
  • Laugh: The list of health benefits from laughter is so long it sounds made up. It releases endorphins which relieve pain, chase away stress, and may have a positive effect on anxiety and depression. Laughter stimulates circulation and relieves muscle tension. It even causes the release of neuropeptides that help your body fight disease. And what on earth are you supposed to laugh at in this epoch of despair? I don't know. Cats?
Friends, take care of yourselves as well as you can. Try to remember that, as scary as things are, even if you get this thing, and even if you're in a high risk group, your odds of beating it are better than your odds of not. Remember that I love you. I'm staying home for you. I hope you're staying home for me too.

You can find more information about the impact of stress on your health in Richard Sapolski's wonderful book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers.