With the increase in cases fueled by the Omicron variant, a rise in demand for coronavirus testing — and right behind it, a rise in accusations of fraud and warnings to American consumers about dodgy coronavirus testing locations.
“Throughout California, bogus testing sites are on the rise to exploit families and individuals seeking Covid tests,” Rob Bonta, the California attorney general, said in a statement last month.
Attorneys general in New Mexico, New York, Massachusetts, Oregon, Florida, Minnesota, California, Illinois, Colorado and Washington have all closed or sued testing sites over the past few weeks.
One thing that operators of illegitimate testing sites may seek is patients’ personal information, such as credit card numbers, driver’s license data, and social security numbers, which can later be used to identity theft or unsolicited online purchases. They may try to charge governments for tests they believe were provided to uninsured people, or charge consumers for tests that were supposed to be provided for free and then provide fabricated results or none at all.
“It’s important for people to know that these sites are not authorized or regulated by any government agency, and they should ask questions before visiting a pop-up testing site – or attempting to use a testing site sponsored by the state,” Kwame Raoul, the Illinois attorney general, said in a statement in January.
The Federal Trade Commission website offers guidelines on how to avoid being tricked by fake test sites. The commission recommends that people who want to get tested should be referred by a healthcare provider, rather than trusting any site they come across. Another tip is to check if a site is listed on the local health department website. Consumers can also ask their local police department or sheriff’s office, which should know of any legitimate, locally approved testing sites.
The Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services recommends being wary of any testing site that asks for financial or medical information to perform a free test.
A prominent case of fraud charges involves a Chicago-based company, Center for Covid Control, which opened some 300 pop-up locations across the country and collected up to 10,000 samples a day. The FBI and other federal agencies, including the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, are investigating the company and its partner lab, Doctors Clinical Laboratory, following complaints from former employees and members of the public.
The company and the lab are also under investigation by attorneys general in several states, including Illinois, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Minnesota and Massachusetts.
Illinois Attorney General Raoul wrote in a statement that complaints about the company ranged “from test results delayed or not received at all, to results provided to people who have never undergone incorrectly stored tests and staff incorrectly use PPE and face masks.
The Center for Covid Control announced in late January that all of its testing sites would be closed until further notice. The company said in a brief statement posted on its website that it will provide additional training to its employees on sample collection, customer service and compliance with regulatory guidelines. The statement does not directly address the charges against the company, and the website no longer functions.
Representatives for the Center for Covid Control did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment on this article.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed a lawsuit against the company and the lab on Jan. 19, accusing them of “misleading consumers.” In a press release, Mr Ellison cited accusations from former employees that test samples had been improperly stored and neglected for days, and that managers had ordered them to falsify sample receipt dates and lying to patients about the results, saying they were negative or inconclusive when the samples had in fact never been tested.
A lawsuit filed by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson accuses the company of fraudulently billing the federal government more than $124 million to test supposedly uninsured patients, many of whom had health insurance.
“The Center for Covid Control contributed to the spread of Covid-19 when it provided false negative results,” Ferguson said in a statement. “These bogus testing centers were threatening the health and safety of our communities.”