Fake pop-up testing sites proliferated in the U.S. as demand soared, officials say.
With the surge in cases fueled by the Omicron variant came a surge in the demand for coronavirus tests — and right behind it, a surge in accusations of fraud and warnings to U.S. consumers about dodgy coronavirus testing locations.
“Throughout California, fake testing sites are sprouting up to exploit families and individuals seeking Covid tests,” Rob Bonta, the attorney general of California, said in a statement last month.
Attorneys general in New Mexico, New York, Massachusetts, Oregon, Florida, Minnesota, California, Illinois, Colorado and Washington have all shut down or sued testing sites in recent weeks.
One thing that illegitimate test-site operators may be after is patients’ personal information, like credit card numbers, driver’s license data and Social Security numbers, which can be used afterward for identity theft or unsolicited online purchases. They may try to bill governments for tests they claim were provided to uninsured people, or charge consumers fees for tests that were supposed to be provided free, and then deliver made-up results or none at all.
“It is important for people to know that these sites are not licensed or regulated by a government agency, and they should ask questions before visiting a pop-up testing location — or try to utilize a state-sponsored testing site,” Kwame Raoul, the attorney general of Illinois, advised in a statement in January.
The Federal Trade Commission’s website offers guidelines on how to avoid being fooled by fake testing sites. The commission recommends that people who are seeking a test get a referral from a health care provider, instead of trusting any site they happen to come across. Another tip is to check whether a site is listed on the local health department’s website. Consumers can also ask their local police department or sheriff’s office, which should know about all legitimate, locally approved testing sites.
The Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general recommends being wary of any testing site that requests financial or medical information to perform a free test.
One prominent case of fraud accusations 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 F.B.I. 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 being investigated by attorneys general in a number of states, including Illinois, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Minnesota and Massachusetts.
The attorney general of Illinois, Mr. Raoul, wrote in a statement that complaints about the company had ranged “from testing results being delayed or not received at all, to results being provided to individuals who were never administered a test, to tests being stored improperly, and staff incorrectly using P.P.E. and face masks.”
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 that had been posted on its website that it would provide additional training to its employees on sample collection, customer service and compliance with regulatory guidelines. The statement did not directly address the accusations against the company, and the website is no longer functioning.
Center for Covid Control representatives did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment for this article.
Attorney General Keith Ellison of Minnesota filed suit against the company and the lab on Jan. 19, accusing them of “deceiving consumers.” In a news release, Mr. Ellison cited accusations from former employees that test samples were stored improperly and neglected for days, and that managers instructed them to falsify sample receipt dates and to lie to patients about results, saying they were negative or inconclusive when the samples had actually never been tested.
A suit filed by the attorney general of Washington, Bob Ferguson, accuses the company of fraudulently billing the federal government for more than $124 million for testing supposedly uninsured patients, many of whom had health insurance.
“Center for Covid Control contributed to the spread of Covid-19 when it provided false negative results,” Mr. Ferguson said in a statement. “These sham testing centers threatened the health and safety of our communities.”