As demand for COVID-19 testing has soared, state and federal officials are warning consumers of three problems that can jeopardize their health and pocketbooks:
- Fake pop-up test sites have been reported in several states. They’re set up to steal personal information, such as credit card numbers, Social Security numbers and health information.
- Impostors reportedly have crashed legitimate test sites. The crooks are said to pose as health care workers to try to grab your private information.
- Fake at-home test kits for COVID-19 are being peddled online.
“As the pandemic continues to grip our nation, bad actors are finding new ways to take advantage of our current reality,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in January.
Fake test sites
Phony sites can be hard to spot, since they “look real, with legitimate-looking signs, tents, hazmat suits and realistic-looking tests,” according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a consumer-protection agency.
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Nationwide testing firm slapped with lawsuits in Minnesota and Washington state
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced a consumer protection lawsuit last month against two companies that allegedly collected and processed samples from state residents for COVID-19 testing but failed to deliver results or delivered results that were falsified or inaccurate.
A third allegation: Some Minnesotans reported receiving test results from the companies despite never having submitted a sample for testing.
One defendant had been operating more than 300 testing sites across the U.S. but announced a day after the suit was filed that it was suspending operations indefinitely, “pending the resolution of federal and state inquiries and claims,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.
The defendants are the Center for Covid Control, LLC, and Doctors Clinical Laboratory, Inc., housed at the same address in suburban Chicago.
USA Today reported that Washington state’s attorney general sued the two firms on Jan. 31. The center had operated in at least 26 states and processed more than 80,000 tests a day. It is now the subject of probes by federal authorities and several states, the paper has reported.
There have been reports of sites claiming to have free tests but billing consumers later, the FTC says. Other complaints are from people who never receive the test they were promised.
When a fake site obtains your personal information, it “can be used for identity theft or to run up your credit card bill,” the FTC says. Even worse, the sham sites are not “giving people the help they need to stay healthy.”
Never give out your Social Security number or passport number to get a COVID test, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) says.
More tips from the FTC:
- Get a referral. Go to a site recommended by your doctor or state or local health department. Do not trust a random testing site you see around town.
- Be skeptical. Did you hear about a new testing site on a neighborhood social media group or group email list? A “neighbor” could be a scammer, so be sure the site also is on a state or local health department’s website.
- Not sure a site is legit? Check with your local police or sheriff’s office. If a legitimate testing site has been set up, they should know about it. On the other hand, if a fake testing site is up and running, they’ll want to know.
- Avoid “look-alike” websites. Fake testing sites may require you to sign up online, so beware of fake sites that purposely look identical to those of well-known, trusted organizations or a state agency. Before entering personal information online, make sure that the website is secure and does not have misspellings or unfamiliar names in its URL.
- Be wary of unsolicited calls about testing sites. A legitimate company or health clinic will not call, text or email you without your permission. If you receive an unsolicited message, do not provide the caller or sender with personal information until you have confirmed it is a legitimate source. If you feel pressured to provide personal information, just hang up.
After reports in Sarasota, Florida, about suspicious people impersonating health care workers at a genuine testing site, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody issued a consumer alert last month to warn that impersonators were said to be asking test seekers for personal, financial and medical information. She suggested these questions to help spot a phony:
- Are they dressed the same as the other health care workers on-site?
- Are they interacting with test seekers within the established test-site area?
- Can they correctly answer questions without seeming nervous or confused?
- Do they pressure test seekers for personal or financial information?
- Are health care guidelines and standards being followed?
Fake at-home test kits
Four free COVID tests per household are now available from the federal government at COVIDtests.gov, and private insurance companies are required to cover the cost of up to eight over-the-counter tests per month for each covered person, the CFPB says.
If you want to buy a test kit online, the CFPB urges people to:
- Check out the Food and Drug Administration’s list of authorized antigen test and PCR tests.
- Pay by credit card, since if you are charged for an order that you do not receive, you can dispute the charge with the credit card company.
Nessel, Michigan’s attorney general, also suggests the following:
- Check out a seller before buying, especially if you’re on an unfamiliar site. Search the company’s name with words such as “scam,” “complaint” or “review.”
- Compare online reviews for a wide variety of websites to better know a company, product or service.
Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.