Fraudulent COVID-19 test sites proliferate, triggering consumer warnings
New Mexico, Oregon, Florida, Minnesota, New York and Illinois have shut down fake pop-up test locations
Officials nationwide are trying to stay ahead of a proliferation of Covid-19 test sites that they say are offering fraudulent services to the public.
Attorneys general in states including New Mexico, Oregon, Florida, Minnesota, New York and Illinois have shut down pop-up test locations, or issued warnings, citing late or false test results and theft of people’s personal information. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has warned that "scammers are preying on people looking for Covid tests."
Authorities have alleged that the operators of these sites are making money by sending bills to people whose insurance is supposed to cover Covid-19 tests or falsely claiming consumers are uninsured as a way to seek reimbursement from the federal government.
Though access has been increasing, pharmacies, health systems and government agencies have since December felt the strain of demand for Covid-19 tests in the midst of the Omicron surge. That has created an opening for independent providers, some of which are fly-by-night operations, according to law-enforcement officials.
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Public-health authorities often tightly regulate labs that analyze Covid-19 tests, but don’t closely monitor sites that conduct the tests, creating regulatory gaps.
"You want to make testing available," said Gigi Gronvall, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "At the same time, when you don’t have as many barriers, you open up the potential for fraud."
James Jackson, a retired geologist in Portland, Ore., said Covid-19 tests were in short supply near his home in November, so he went to a pop-up testing booth in the parking lot of a convenience store. Mr. Jackson, 73 years old, wanted to make sure he wasn’t carrying the virus before visiting an immunocompromised friend.
After presenting his insurance information, he took a PCR test and was told to expect results by email in three days. When that didn’t happen, Mr. Jackson said he returned to the site and was assured results were coming soon.
"I never did hear from them," Mr. Jackson said, adding that the pop-up site is now closed. "I thought, ‘God, this looks like fraud.’"
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In Philadelphia, workers at a pop-up tent advertised free Covid-19 testing in late December. When approached by city staff, they falsely claimed to be funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said James Garrow, spokesman for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.
That site closed voluntarily, but others have sprouted, many of which "are little more than a table set up on the sidewalk," Mr. Garrow said.
"We’ve told members of the public to contact our call center when they come across them, but we are likely missing some," he said.
Philadelphia is looking at new regulations for test sites, Mr. Garrow added.
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In Los Angeles, County Supervisor Janice Hahn last month asked officials to monitor pop-up testing spots, with her office saying in a statement that "some sites are charging people for tests they never receive results for and others are asking people to give them their Social Security number." Officials had already shut down six fraudulent sites there, her office said.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed on Jan. 19 a lawsuit against Center for Covid Control LLC and an associated independent lab, alleging that they "failed to deliver test results, or delivered test results that were falsified or inaccurate." The lab allegedly billed the federal government more than $113 million for testing purportedly uninsured patients across the country.
Former employees told investigators they were "instructed to lie to consumers about their tests being inconclusive or negative when, in fact, the sample had not been tested," Mr. Ellison’s office said in a statement.
The Center for Covid Control says on its website that it runs some 300 testing sites nationwide and that it is currently pausing operations to train additional staff on procedures and compliance with regulatory guidelines. The website says the company "remains committed to providing the highest level of customer service and diagnostic quality." A person answering a phone at a number linked to the owner declined to answer questions about the lawsuit.
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In Lufkin, Texas, residents became suspicious after a testing table popped up in an old Kmart parking lot and an organizer "couldn’t give a clear, straight answer" about who the site was affiliated with, said city spokeswoman Jessica Pebsworth.
The site was gone as quickly as it came, and officials told the public to be cautious about such operations in the future.
"They get uncomfortable," she said of the fast-disappearing sites, "and just pull up their stakes and head to the next town, I imagine."