As if the exploding cases of Covid-19 and its variants aren't enough, reports now come from across the country of frauds involving so-called "pop-up" Covid testing sites and testing kits that may not be legitimate or approved by the FDA. Let's start off with the concerns around "pop-up" Covid testing sites and one woman's experience.
Sandra Jaramillo, of San Antonio, Texas, was exhibiting some minor Covid symptoms and reported this to her human resource department at her job. Following CDC guidance, the HR Director told her that a test was necessary and if negative, she could return to work.
Sandra scoured the internet trying to find a location with an available appointment but had no luck. She decided to drive around to known testing sites in the city hoping she would find an opening, but the lines were long, and the only open appointments available there were over a week away at the earliest. She was not in any financial position to miss this much time from work, so a long wait was not an option for her. Dejected, she was returning home when she saw a small tent set up in the parking lot of a church with a sign advertising free COVID testing, so she excitedly pulled into what is known as a "pop-up testing site".
Unlicensed and Unregulated "Pop-Ups"
These types of testing sites are put into place by licensed test providers when more permanent sites are overwhelmed by those needing testing. Sandra drove up and provided the requested information - driver's license number, date of birth, and email address and was handed a swab to collect the specimen herself. She was told that the results would be coming to her through her email.
After a week, she tried to call the number listed on the paperwork she received but the mailbox was always full. She began to feel that something just wasn't right and became concerned not only about the test results but her personal information as well. “At this point, it’s making me feel like I am being scammed,” Jaramillo, 32, told a local news station in San Antonio. “It's been terrible. It feels like there is no choice and nowhere to turn [for a test].”
Sadly, Sandra was right. These pop-up testing sites have been showing up on street corners, in parking lots of shopping malls, on church properties, and even in parks and recreational sites, and although most of them are legitimate, more and more are not what they seem to be, say a number of local health and legal experts.
Here are just a few examples:
In the St. Louis area, a testing site set up in a mall parking lot was asking people for their social security cards and passport ID numbers. It was shut down by the police.
Two sites in Baltimore were found to be illegal and were collecting information from people for the sole purpose of identity theft.
In Chicago, a number of sites were found to be legally registered but staffed by untrained and unprofessional workers and described as "hell holes" by those who went for testing. Those collecting specimens did not wear gloves or masks, hands were not cleaned between clients, and conditions were dirty and loaded with medical waste.
In Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that more than 4,000 people took Covid tests at tents throughout busy parts of the city that were run by an organization that falsely identified itself as partnering with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and that some sites may have taken Social Security numbers.
Across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, nasal swabs were being collected by a New Jersey-based marketing agency and then shipped to a Chicago "testing lab", owned by a plumber and bar owner.
"With the onset of omicron and the escalating cases of Covid-19 variants, people are scrambling to get tests for their safety, the safety of loved ones and friends, and for work-related reasons, but be wary of those pop-up sites that are not associated with your state's Department of Health or those not affiliated with known medical providers in the area," said certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "Sadly, because testing resources are limited, scarcity has lent itself to scammers and they are taking full advantage of it."
Fraudulent Testing Kits
"Similar issues exist with at-home testing kits," continued Attorney Connelly. "If you buy your kits at a well-known drug store chain, you can feel confident that they know the product is legitimate. But some corner convenience stores and many on the internet are capitalizing on the demand for these kits and are selling products that may not be approved by the FDA or are bogus."
And the concerns about these fraudulent kits are not just financial. "A person using one of these fraudulent kits could receive a negative result when in fact they are positive but asymptomatic which would lead to a further spread of COVID or a delay in treatment, so they also pose major healthcare concerns," stated Attorney Connelly.
So, what is a consumer to do? The FDA has released a process to follow when purchasing at-home testing kits;
FDA authorization. Any at-home test needs to be authorized by the FDA. The FDA maintains a list of antigen diagnostic tests and molecular diagnostic tests that you can check before purchasing the test.
Check out the retailer. If you are not aware of the name of the seller, search online using their name. Check for complaints or reviews on the product.
Compare products. If you are satisfied that the retailer is legitimate, check the reviews about their product and see who the reviews are coming from.
Pay with a credit card. Once you're satisfied that the company is legitimate, and you have done your due diligence regarding reviews, use a credit card to pay for your order. That way if you do not receive it or it does not meet the advertised standards, you can dispute the charge with your credit card company.
If you suspect fraud. Once you receive the test(s) and they are not what is advertised or the retailer turns out to be less than honest, you can contact the FDA at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.
Other Covid Related Scams
The FBI and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General also offer additional tips on how to avoid COVID-19 related scams besides testing sites and sham test kits. The FBI said the public should be aware of the following potential indicators of fraudulent activity:
Advertisements or offers for early access to a vaccine upon payment of a deposit or fee.
Requests asking you to pay out of pocket to obtain the vaccine or to put your name on a COVID-19 vaccine waiting list.
Offers to undergo additional medical testing or procedures when obtaining a vaccine.
Marketers that offer to sell and/or ship doses of a vaccine, domestically or internationally, in exchange for payment of a deposit or fee.
Unsolicited emails, telephone calls, or personal contact from someone claiming to be from a medical office, insurance company, or COVID-19 vaccine center requesting personal and/or medical information to determine recipients’ eligibility to participate in clinical vaccine trials or obtain the vaccine.
Claims of FDA approval for a vaccine that cannot be verified.
Advertisements for vaccines through social media platforms, email, telephone calls, online, or from unsolicited/unknown sources.
Individuals contacting you in person, by phone, or by email to tell you the government or government officials require you to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
"We know that nothing is off-limits to those who are intent on perpetrating frauds on the public," stated Attorney Connelly. "The bottom line here is that individuals should know who they are buying these in-home tests from and never share personal or health information with anyone other than known and trusted medical professionals."
If you suspect you may have been a victim of fraud, keep a close eye on your bank account, credit card statements, and even your medical insurance for unauthorized billing. Any discrepancies should be reported immediately.