As the omicron variant of the coronavirus disease ravaged the U.S. population in January 2022, federal and state officials attempted to ring the alarm on scammers trying to profit off of the country's increased demand for testing.
Aside from having their identities potentially stolen, victims of fraudulent testing schemes risk spending unnecessary money, unknowingly spreading COVID-19, or delaying medical treatment when they need it. People across the country reported giving too much personal information for "tests" that never returned results, or trying to reserve appointments that never actually happened, among other problems, according to the Better Business Bureau (BBB).
Several state attorney general offices were investigating such complaints at the time of this writing. In New York, for example, Attorney General Letitia James was looking into a Brooklyn-based vendor that customers said wrongfully billed them for rapid antigen and polymerase (PCR) tests.
Meanwhile, the Michigan attorney general's office said it was grappling with an increase in calls and complaints about potentially fake at-home tests, and New Mexico officials said they were investigating reports that sites were giving out negative results without actually testing people. Additionally, a BBB spokesperson told NBC News that users of an Illinois-based firm that operates 300 pop-up testing locations nationwide have reported not getting results back. (That company said it was pausing operations until Jan. 22.)
"Unfortunately, scammers love to 'help' with shortages. They’ve created fake and unauthorized at-home testing kits, and they’re still at it with fake COVID-19 testing sites," the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)'s Ari Lazarus said in a statement. "These fake sites can be hard to spot."
Below are some tips from the BBB, FTC, and various local health departments to make sure your testing sample gets to a certified lab that effectively screens it for the virus.
1. Don't Give Out Too Much Info
Typically, testing vendors need only your name and basic personal information, such as a way to contact you to share results. Some may ask if you have health insurance so they can make that company cover the test's cost.
Additionally, providers of legitimate tests are unlikely to directly contact you, aside from updates about an in-progress test or your results.
That means anyone who visits your home or gives you an unexpected phone call claiming to offer COVID-19 tests is likely a scammer, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office. Also, that agency advises against clicking on links in suspicious text messages, emails, or social media advertisements supposedly promoting testing kits.
"No legitimate company or health clinic will call, text, or email you without your permission," the BBB said in a Jan. 14 statement. "If you get an unsolicited message from someone, it’s best not to give the caller or sender any personal details before confirming it’s from a legitimate source."
Testing in person? Visit your state, tribal, or local health department’s website to make sure the site is authorized to collect certain information from you, such as your name or address, in return for COVID-19 testing results using a licensed lab. Call your doctor's office if you're unsure whether a site seems legit.
Attempting to buy an at-home kit online? Check to make sure there are no misspellings or unfamiliar titles in the URL bar (both signs of a scammy website) before filling out any personal information.
2. Be Wary of Spending Money
As of mid-January 2022, health facilities and some pharmacies nationwide were offering free in-person testing to people (regardless of insurance status) if they risk a COVID-19 infection, and the federal government was preparing to send tests to people at no cost if/when they requested them on the website COVIDTests.gov.
In other words, take a second look at testing systems that require money, especially if your test is medically necessary.
That said, paying for a COVID-19 test isn't a sure-fire sign of fraud. Adam Tanner from Consumer Reports told NPR on Jan. 11:
So the rules are if they are medically necessary tests — that means either you have COVID or you've been exposed to someone that has COVID — those tests are covered by the U.S. rules covered by your insurance company. If, however, they're not medically necessary — you want to go traveling to a place that requires a test; you want to go to a concert; you want to go back to work and your work requires it — then you have to pay. Those are considered non-medically necessary tests. And, again, there's a very wide range of prices from zero at community centers, at health centers, various hospitals to hundreds and hundreds of dollars, whatever these new testing centers may want to charge. So it pays to check what those prices are.
So, if you need testing results for travel or other obligations, and you find a testing site that fits your schedule for a cost, the FTC encourages you to use a credit card for payment so you can try to dispute the charge if something goes wrong (i.e., your results never come).
3. Seek Testing Systems With FDA Green Light
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued an "emergency use authorization" for tests manufactured by dozens of different companies.
That endorsement means the manufacturers of the tests have proven their effectiveness via clinical trials and supplied paperwork to confirm their legitimacy.
Those FDA-endorsed tests come in two categories: molecular diagnostic tests (they scan for the actual virus, SARS-CoV-2, that causes COVID-19) and antigen diagnostic tests (they test for proteins made by the coronavirus and are generally less sensitive to early infections).
For at-home tests, you can use the FDA's website to check whether the agency gave a manufacturer's test the green light — or, on the other hand, whether it cited the product for making fraudulent claims.
Or, if you're at a pharmacy, clinic, drive-thru, or other type of in-person site, you can ask for this information from a provider collecting samples. "Ask the question, 'Are these tests FDA authorized and which laboratory are you sending test results?'"Allison Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, told ABC Chicago. "If you get a sense they can't answer that would be an obvious red flag."
4. Do Some Light Google-ing
Scammers might put pressure on you to quickly buy or commit to a test without giving you time for research, the Fort Worth Star Telegram wrote in this guide to help spot such fraud.
So, before you make the trip to a new mobile testing site or click "buy" for an at-home kit, search the vendor's name (ex., "COVID-19 Vault Testing" or "QURED") with keywords such as "scam," "complaint," or "investigation."
If your top results include news stories or statements from state government agencies supposedly outlining the company's fraudulent or misleading practices, you'll want to find a different way to test.
And even if that search doesn't seem to uncover anything potentially nefarious, consider doing a bit more digging.
Find an online marketplace that sells the manufacturer's test, such as CVS pharmacy, and try to find customers' reviews. Look for any that mention problems with results or payment. Next, use the BBB's website to verify the vendor's accreditation with that agency. Scan again for any fishy stories from users in the BBB's "customer reviews" or "customer complaints" sections.
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